A vote for Theresa May is not a vote for women

"Despite important law changes on violence against women, there has been lots of rhetoric but not much action when it comes to improving women's rights in the UK"
"Despite important law changes on violence against women, there has been lots of rhetoric but not much action when it comes to improving women's rights in the UK"

By Sian Norris

We all know Labour is behind in the polls. However, there is one group of voters where the party has a clear and solid lead: women under-40.  As a member of this demographic, I can understand why. After all, it's women of my generation who have arguably been most hurt by the more destructive Tory policies - from cuts to child tax credits to attacks on social care and public sector jobs.

When she became the UK's second female home secretary, Theresa May spoke at the Women's Aid conference promising "actions not words" on violence against women and wider equality. Now, as we approach the general election it's worth looking at her policies to see if she has lived up to that promise, and to better understand why Labour are winning with women my age.


Violence against women and girls:

Let's start with gender-based violence. It's true that under the Coalition and the Conservative government, we have seen new laws designed to tackle male violence against women. Starting with criminalising forced marriage in 2014. The following year May introduced the 'coercive control' law that recognised emotional and financial abuse as a crime. The prime minister has also been part of two governments who, thanks to stirling grassroots campaigning work, have implemented new guidelines to help end FGM in a generation.

However, May's new laws risk being more 'words' rather than the 'action' promised. As Professor Aisha K Gill (Professor of Criminology at University of Roehampton) told me recently:

"Ultimately, the success of the stand-alone law on forced marriage depends on how effective it proves for victims/survivors. At present, too little consideration has been paid to the practicalities of this legislation, and its effect on victims/survivors themselves."

Meanwhile, in the first six months of being introduced, the coercive control law was only used 62 times. Considering there are an estimated 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse in England and Wales every year, we can be fairly certain that 62 uses of the law is a devastatingly low number. Talking to women working in the sector, they argue that police officers don't understand the law and therefore don't apply it properly. Surely another example of more words and not enough action. 

At the same time, cuts have had a devastating impact on support services for women fleeing male violence. Since 2010, 17% of domestic violence refuges have closed. Unless we have proper support services in place to help women, having more laws on the statute books will fail to save their lives or increase their access to justice.

Reproductive rights

Theresa May proudly wore her 'This is what a feminist looks like' T-shirt for the Fawcett Society. But her voting record on reproductive rights is anything but feminist. She has repeatedly voted in favour of more restrictive abortion laws (e.g. criminalising sex-selective abortion, reducing the upper-time limit) and did not vote at all on decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks.

Under May's premiership though the government has finally moved towards mandatory sex and relationships education (a policy Labour planned to introduce in 2010), which will give young people the opportunity to learn about contraception, reproductive rights, respect and consent.

Poverty

Research has proven time and time again that women have borne the brunt of the government's austerity measures. Changes since 2010 have hit women twice as hard as men. The Women's Budget Group has estimated that by 2020 women will be £1003 worse off each year, compared to £555 for men. Women, WBG say, will bear the brunt of 85% of the changes to tax and benefits by 2020.

This is, in part, because women are more likely to have caring responsibilities, meaning that we are harder hit by cuts to benefits and social care. Young mums in particular will be devastated by the ban on all housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. Women are also more likely to be in lower-paid jobs than men and therefore more dependent on in-work benefits.

At the same time, the change in pension ages is causing real harm to women of my mother's age, with some set to lose £30,000 in income. 

And the government's callous 'rape clause' in their child tax credit cut is perhaps the cruellest manifestation of how the cuts are harming women first and hardest.

Immigration

May has talked tough on immigration - a rhetoric causing real harm to some of the UK's most vulnerable women. She has ignored repeated calls to close down Yarl's Wood where female refugees and asylum seekers are detained in degrading conditions. This is despite repeated allegations of sexual and physical assault, and racist abuse, made against staff by the women detained there. There is plenty of research showing fairer alternatives to detention, however the government remains committed to this damaging policy. 

The women locked up in Yarl's Wood are often survivors of sexual assault, and traumatised by war, conflict and persecution. Detaining them in Yarl's Wood has a negative impact on their mental and physical well-being. The government must end this unjust and cruel system that causes so much harm to vulnerable women.

May's government has also gone against the changes made by the Coalition in detaining child refugees. 

Despite important law changes on violence against women, there has been lots of rhetoric but not much action when it comes to improving women's rights in the UK. Instead, May has actively introduced policies that cause harm to women's rights and access to equality - from cuts that leave women poorer and more vulnerable, to presiding over the decimation of the support system that keeps women safe from male violence.

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is currently writer-in-residence at Spike Island. Follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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