How does austerity affect women’s health?

26th February 2018

By Imogen Robinson

“Last year, an Afghan woman came to a clinic that I volunteer with,” said Dr. Sonia Adesara, a doctor, and an ambassador for 50:50 Parliament, an organisation that seeks better diversity and representation among MPs.

“She was visibly pregnant, and she had come to us because her husband had been violent towards her and kicked her out of the house. She was too scared to call the police because she was worried about detention. We tried to get her into a refuge but there was nothing available.”

That night, Sonia’s team had to explain to this woman that the safest thing for her to do was spend the night on a night bus. “This is a pregnant woman, in the middle of winter,” added Sonia. “And she was told to spend the night on a night bus and come back in the morning.”

Sonia shared the above anecdote with the audience at The Femedic’s first panel discussion, talking about the effects of austerity on women’s health. The discussion was chaired by The Femedic’s founder Monica Karpinski, and Sonia was joined on the panel by Kimberly McIntosh, a policy officer at Runnymede Trust, Emma Williamson of Women’s Budget Group, and Sarah Mulindwa, a nurse at sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street.

How are austerity measures adversely affecting women?

“If you look at the data since 1948, health inequality has been going down as you would expect,” said Sonia. “But then that decline gets to 2010 and plateaus, and what we see then is that health inequality starts to increase, and that increase continues until today.”

Women are more likely to use the NHS than men, so any cuts to NHS services are going to hit women harder. Cuts to benefits also adversely affect women, and their health. Women are more likely to be on benefits, and more likely to be out of work or in low paid, precarious, part time work, so are therefore more likely to claim job seekers allowance. Women live longer, and are more likely to be carers, and the burden of caring for others affects mental health.

We are also seeing cuts to domestic violence services, women’s refuges, and rape crisis centres, all places women go to for support if they’re in danger and we know that women are more likely to remain in abusive relationships if there isn’t a support network. Women are more likely to work in the public sector, and while 42% of the workforce are women, 77% of the NHS workforce is women, so when you look at NHS cuts, and the pay cap across the public sector, it’s women who are really suffering from that.

The prospects for women from minority backgrounds are even worse. If you’re a black woman you’re more likely to be detained under the mental health act. In terms of changes to tax and benefits, white men in the highest income bracket only lost 1% of their income from 2010 to 2020, compared to 17% for Asian women and 14% for black women.

In the UK, there are over 100,000 people living with HIV, and the most affected group after men who have sex with men is black women of African decent. Yet while we have services specially targeted for gay men, there are no such services for women.

As services are cut thanks to cuts to local government budgets, access decreases even more. In fact, cuts to local government funding have been dramatic under austerity, with some local governments seeing their budgets cut by a total of 80%.

“We’ve seen an 80% drop in HIV diagnoses at 56 Dean Street thanks to PrEP,” said Sarah. “But these numbers are not being reflected among black women.’

Data also shows you are more likely to suffer from a mental health issue if you are from a black Caribbean background, and Asian women between the ages of 18 and 35 are four times more likely to commit suicide than white women.

Finally, If you’re in a lower socio-economic group in early life, even if you then work your way out of poverty, this still has marked impacts for you in later life, and is linked to cardiovascular disease and even early death.

“Even if we make policy changes now,” Kimberly said, “the delayed impacts of these are going to have negative effects on people that might not be able to be undone, so this is a very, very urgent policy issue.”

Why is government failing to act?

The NHS workforce is 77% female, but if we look at directors at the NHS, 75% of these are male. 85% of finance directors, those deciding where, and to whom, the money goes, are male.

“What 50:50 believes is that if we want to get women’s lives and experiences prioritised, we need to have those who are in positions of making power to be truly representative of the diversity of this country,” said Sonia.

“We did some research where we asked questions and gauged where Brits are at in terms of their social attitudes,” added Kimberly. “What percentage of people in the UK believe that some races are simply just born harder working than others? It’s 44% of people.” Further to that, the percentage of people that describe themselves as a little, or quite prejudiced against people from other races is 26% – and this figure hasn’t gone below that since 1986.

So, if you have a job interview where two women are equally matched in terms of qualifications, but the person interviewing is innately prejudiced against the person who isn’t the same race as them, they are not going to get the job. So, they will be the one needing the benefits which are being cut, and, of course, the link between poverty and ill health is well documented.

The current government isn’t even bothering to look at the impact of cuts on women themselves. This is something that the Women’s Budget Groups attempts to do, analysing government policy from a gender perspective in a bid to try and promote policies that will work to achieve a gender equality.

“This is something that the cabinet should arguably be doing, and they have a duty to do that under the equality act, but they repeatedly fail to carry out an assessment of how their policies affect different groups differently,” said Emma.

Minorities that don’t have voices are less able to put pressure on the government, and there is also deeply entrenched stigma from those holding positions of power that affects women from minority backgrounds adversely.

Specialised services, and particularly those that are focused on ethnic minorities, are often the first to be cut under austerity. An example in London is that the clinics that have been cut are mainly those that treat sex workers, gender based violence services, women’s refuges, and FGM services.

As these groups are marginalised, they don’t have a voice, and they don’t have anyone shouting for them. “So cuts to them are the easiest thing for the government to do simply because its easiest to ignore them,” said Sonia. “And then, they become marginalised even further.”

What can we do about it?

How can we tackle prejudice, how can we address inequality, and how can we, ultimately, convince the government that austerity is not working? And until we have convinced them, how can we help the women affected in the meantime?

“Is the solution,” asked Monica, “to simply give marginalised groups a voice, perhaps?”

While this would help, argued Kimberly, ultimately it is the government’s responsibility, and not that of marginalised groups themselves. “Giving them a voice would help put pressure on the government, but equally it is the responsibility of the government, we’ve given them all of the evidence, and they’re not acting so I don’t know what else can be done to encourage them to act.”

A lot of the time, added Emma, the government is simply using diversion tactics. “We’ve seen really dystopian things happen, such as using the tampon tax to fund women’s organisations,” she said. “There’s no additional money going in, it’s just leeching money off women in the first place.”

Sarah believes that one way of resolving issues is by going directly into communities that are most affected and giving help and offering services, as opposed to waiting for affected communities to come to you.

“With gay men, we go to nightclubs, we go to saunas, we go to gay bars and give out leaflets, and offer instant HIV testing,” she said. ‘We should do the same for black and minority women. We need to find people in these communities and employ them, and get them to work with service providers.”

But until the government can do that, without having to lean on the charity sector to offer support, what can we do in the meantime?

We all need to pressure the government, that much is clear. And, on a grassroots level, giving women the resources, the space, and the time to actually campaign on these issues is also important. For example, providing childcare services can free up a lot of women’s time, so they can push for resources and services that they need.

Short of scrapping austerity policies altogether, Kim added that there are some, specifically, that could be scrapped right now with almost instantaneous positive repercussions on women’s health.

“Universal Credit? Scrap,” she said. “Or, if I’m being milder, relook at Universal Credit so that it’s kinder to single mothers. We could scrap the benefit cap, the two child limit to child benefits could be abolished, and we could increased benefits in line with the cost of living right now.”

We can also begin lobbying on specific policies to get them changed. For example, at the Women’s Budget Group, Emma explained they have worked on things like split payments. Currently, if you claim for a household, the payment goes to just one person, normally the breadwinner, and therefore normally the man. This means that a woman is particularly vulnerable if she is in an abusive relationship, for example, so things like that need to be looked at and addressed.

“We need to equip people with the facts and figures they need to hold the government to account,” Emma added.

Ultimately, one thing is very clear: austerity is not working, it’s affecting women the most, and it needs to be stopped. Until then, we need to keep pushing for change, and keep making as much noise as possible around the issue.

‘How does austerity affect women’s health?’ was a panel discussion held by The Femedic on 22nd February 2018. The above statistics were all quoted by panelists at the event. For further information on #FemedicMeets evenings, please take a look at our events page.

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Imogen Robinson

Deputy Editor, The Femedic

Imogen joined The Femedic after working as a news reporter. Becoming frustrated with the neverending clickbait, she jumped at the chance to work for a site whose ethos revolves around honesty and empathy. From reading articles by doctors to researching her own, and discussing health with a huge variety of women, she is fascinated by just how little we are told about our own bodies and women-specific health issues, and is excited to be working on a site which will dispel myths and taboos, and hopefully help a lot of women.