The most marginalised women bear the brunt of poverty in the UK

The UK is the fifth richest country in the world but not all get a fair share of its wealth. This week Professor Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published his final report following his visit to the UK in November 2018.

Alston toured the country and met with charities, academics, government officials and people facing poverty: he visited a primary school, a job centre, food banks and held town hall meetings to gather evidence. 

A damning state of affairs

The verdict is damning: one in five Britons live in poverty (14 million), four million of those are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017 – unable to afford basic essentials. Almost 1 in 2 children lives in poverty. Of those living in poverty, 4 million are in work.

The UN expert found that since 2010 austerity policies – in the form of cuts to public services and government spending – together with the roll-out of Universal Credit have broken the safety net that many were counting on.

Policies forcing some women to make desperate choices

Women, in particular single mothers, those living with disabilities and minority communities have been hit the hardest. Because of structural gender inequality in society women earn less than men, are more likely to work in part time, low paid employment are primarily responsible for caring for children, the elderly and the ill. 

As a result, cuts to social services and income support hit them disproportionately.

In addition to issues with the roll out of Universal Credit women have been targeted by policies such as the two child limit for tax credits, together with the outrageous ‘rape clause’ and payments under Universal Credit being made to the head of household, increasing the risk of financial abuse. 

Concern with these policies was also raised by the CEDAW Committee’s review the UK’s record on women’s rights over the past five years. Amnesty‘s submission to the Committee highlighted the impact of cuts to legal aid, ongoing uncertainty for human rights due to the Brexit process as well as the destitution faced by migrant women with no recourse to public funds as major issues threatening the rights of the most marginalised women in society.

The impact has been so harsh that some women told Alston they turned to sex work to make ends meet. The Work and Pension Select Committee is looking into this issue and has received evidence from sex workers themselves and services of women going back to sex work after years because of financial hardship or they were having to do sex work more frequently and in more unsafe conditions as they battle with benefit sanctions and deductions. 

A ‘barely believable’ report using the government’s own data

The government has slammed the report as ‘barely believable’. However, much of Alston’s evidence is based on the government’s own data. According to the National Audit Office and the Ministry of Housing in England, homelessness rose 60 per cent between 2011 and 2017 and rough sleeping rose 165 per cent from 2010 to 2018. Women tend to not visible as much as men as rough sleepers often because they trade sex for a place to stay. 

The report is clear that specific welfare reforms have made things worse.

This means that change is possible – the government can act to reject damaging policies that are impacting generations. A true, reliable system of support can be designed so that people, in particular women and those who need care or provide care for others, can realise their economic and social rights and look at the future with hope.

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