Monday, 31 March 2014

What Do Women Want... From Independence?

The coalition government's attitude to women amounts to an attack and aims to put women back in the home with no way out. Whether this is a conscious ideological decision, or a cumulative effect of various insensitive policies is uncertain; but I've long realised that it's a waste of time trying to figure out whether coalition ministers are evil or just deeply stupid - it's much more useful to spend energy fighting them, rather than trying to understand them.

The coalition have threatened to scrap the Public Sector Equality Duty (which aims to protect women and minorities from discrimination in the public sector) by characterising it as nothing more than red tape, a stance criticised by the Fawcett Society. The Fawcett Society have also produced a report on the impact of the coalition's austerity agenda on women. Reduced public services, the attacks on disabled and unemployed women who often have caring responsibilities to deal with while trying not to be sanctioned; these things badly impact the mental and physical well-being of women across the UK.

On top of this, last week a report by HMIC showed the extent of failures by police forces in England and Wales when dealing with domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is being treated as a non-crime in a society where women are struggling to make ends meet in their present situations, never mind as they try to exit a relationship, or rebuild their lives and the lives of their children. At the same time the Department of Work and Pensions have announced Universal Credit as part of their evil/ridiculously ill-thought-out welfare reforms; this means that one payment per month would be paid only to one member of a household. So while in previous years women in abusive relationships, or women in relationships with men suffering addiction issues, could rely on child benefit payments and their own job seekers allowance to put food on the table, that can no longer be the case under Universal Credit. When two people on benefits are in a relationship and living together they must decide on a single claimant. This surrender of fiscal autonomy would be challenging to people in a healthy relationship - in an abusive relationship we can guess who that claimant would be and the consequences could be grave. This renders women on benefits financially dependent on the man of the house, a sickening consequence of Ian Duncan Smith's plans.

The signs are that many of these problems in Scotland could be eased or eradicated by a move towards independence. We would be able to formulate a more ethical welfare system, hopefully one that takes account of the need for autonomy in romantic relationships and recognises the rights of people on benefits to have such relationships without having to give up their financial independence. Policing, already devolved from Westminster, has been recognised as more sensitive in tackling domestic abuse and a move towards a more socially just society could mean more funding for domestic abuse services, as opposed to the severe cuts taking place under the austerity agenda. Also, the Scottish government's policy on childcare has become a flagship policy of the independence debate and will result in more women with the choice to work, more women with financial independence.

The choice would seem to be a clear one for Scotland's women, but yet polls show that women are far less likely to vote for independence than men. The reason for this is not obvious. Some, including Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, argue that this is because women care more about their children's future than fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants patriotism. But even so, when one looks at the evidence it seems that the children of an independent Scotland will have child care and early years support; they can rely on a safe, nationalised healthcare system; their society will be more equal and more fair than it would be if we remained in the union.

I suspect the opinions of women might be more unionist (for many the default position in the debate) because they have less access to the facts. Women with caring responsibilities, with jobs, and with little time to spare scouring the internet for the facts on independence might be less likely to hear the message that screams loud and clear from alternative media - this is your chance! Seize it with both hands!

A breakdown in the polls seems to show that uncertainty is the greatest differentiating factor; women are more likely to be uncertain about the risks of Scottish independence than men. Again, this could in part be caused by women having less time to access alternative media, though a full analysis of the psychology of women and 'certainty' in a patriarchal society would be interesting. For the purposes of this current debate it might be worth simply remembering that we all know one thing's for sure - if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself. Grassroots involvement and direct engagement are the keys to making people feel empowered and to making them confident in their own ability. If we have that confidence then we will be sure of independence's success, and sure of our power to weather the risks. It's not about appealing to women as a special interest group, it's about equal involvement.

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