speaking at the DON’T turn back time on women’s equality march

I spoke at the rally following the ‘DON’T turn back time on women’s equality’ march organised by the Fawcett Society on 19th November 2011. This is what I said:

We’ve heard today about the disproportionate and negative impact of the cuts on women. As the last speaker, I want to end by zooming in on the impact of the cuts on black women – and I use black in a political sense here – who make up some of the most marginalised and vulnerable women in our society.

Black women are already living in poverty and experience less access to rights. Black women are more likely to be poor and experience multiple forms of inequality and discrimination – 40% of black women live in poverty and 52.8% of black women are unemployed. Over two-thirds of England’s black population lives in the 88 most deprived local authority areas. The issues affecting black women are not mainstreamed into policy and practice – the voices of black communities to which governments listen are usually men who largely do not speak (or care) about women’s rights and our feminist movement needs to do better at reflecting the needs and realities of all women.

We are experiencing some of the most inhumane and brutal spending cuts to services historically set up through struggle to address poverty and inequality. We are experiencing an unprecedented attack on the welfare state that, amongst many other things, will take away the realisation of our right to live free from violence and access legal aid, protection and justice. We are experiencing a fundamental change in the nature of our country. Specialist refuges and other black services are disappearing. They are blaming us, the people who dare to dream of a more equal, a more just, society. It is the fault of multiculturalism, they say, of socialism, of feminism, of workers, unions, immigrants and young people who were not instilled with respect. We here know this is not true.

We know the cuts are affecting the already most vulnerable and marginalised the most. Research published at the beginning of the month found more than 2,000 charities are being forced to close services and make staff redundant. We know that women will be disproportionately affected by the cuts – 1 in 5 women’s groups have already closed and many more face an uncertain future with 60% of refuges and 72% of outreach services having no funding in place come next April. 95% of women’s groups face funding cuts in the next year. Black people, communities and services will also be disproportionately affected. Any guesses what this all means for black women? Black women and black women’s services face a double hit. Vital services are closing and are being bit; these are the very services that save lives – this will have a disproportionate effect on black women’s services who struggle as it is to survive in an environment where they have historically had to fight for funding harder and received less funding that generic services.

We know the cuts will affect the already most vulnerable and marginalised the most.  I want talk specifically about the impact that they will have on young black women. It’s difficult enough when you’re struggling against poverty, racism and sexism; sexism in the world at large, but also in your own family and community; against so-called ‘tradition,’ like forced marriage, the idea of ‘honour’ and practices such as female genital mutilation.  How much more difficult will it be for us when they rip away some of the only support structures that we have and raise even more barriers in their place?  The abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the introduction of ever increasing tuition fees… How can we face some of the most vulnerable women and say that the state cannot help?  How can we call ourselves a democratic society if vulnerable people are denied the opportunity to stand in the same dream as the powerful and privileged?

I want to stress the vital importance of us all taking action. These services; refuges, shelters, immigration and asylum advice centres are our bricks and mortar. They are the very foundation of the feminist movement; the foundation of any hope for equality between women and men. Let us not forget: we’re starting from a very low base here. Even before the cuts were first suggested, we were fighting for more; for a single rape crisis centre in London; for a proper safety net in place to provide advice and services to asylum seekers in Wales; against the shrinking of feminist, anti-racist, secular spaces. Let’s not be under any illusions here. What we had five years ago wasn’t enough; it was barely enough to scratch the surface of what was really needed; and that is going away.

Even what we have, what we had, has taken decades to build. It has been built on and by the needs, fears, sweat and dreams of many thousands of unsung heroes of our movement. There is nothing in place to replace them. The ‘big society’ will not come to the rescue of women experiencing violent abuse, of women fleeing very real threats of persecution trying to find asylum in this country, of women whose identities of race, class and gender intersect and combine in an interlocking web of discrimination and oppression from which there is little way out.

 

Do we, as a movement, have the energy and the time to build it all back up again? The landscape of the country has changed radically since the birth of the rape crisis and refuge movements. I’m not sure we can do it all again. And why should we have to? This is something that we (or our mothers, aunts, grandmothers) fought for. It should be something that we are willing to protect. Once our services are gone, that is it. They are not coming back. What about the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, the most at risk in our society?  What happens to them? As a movement, we have to care about these women. How can we face some of the most vulnerable women and say that the state cannot help?  As a movement, do we care enough about them to fight; to fight for our services, to fight to retain the bare minimum required that we do have?

David Cameron talks about the big society. We say that this is code for sending us back to the Victorian era.  I want to stay in the 21st century, and I think all of you here do too.  History can frighten us, or history can beckon us.  We owe it to future generations not to be afraid and shackled by history, but to create it.  We are at a historic moment right now. The backlash against feminist progress has been coming for years; it is now upon us. The wave is right over our heads and is about to break. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to take action.  The struggle for feminism is the struggle for our human rights. Everything that we enjoy today, that we take for granted, was created by struggle, by people standing up and seeking a better way forward. It is now our turn to do the same and defend what is right.  Our Tradition: Struggle Not Submission.

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