Reimagining Equality in the Era of Neo-Liberalism

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are different from my own”.

Audre Lorde  


In measuring the UK’s response to gender equality[1], recent EU League Table data reveals a ten-year decline in the ranking of the UK compared to other European countries. The UK is trailing its European counterparts in a number of key areas namely; higher educational attainment for women, women’s representation as decision makers in a professional, civil and political matters and men’s lack of participation in family and social domestic life, childcare, caring and other areas deemed to stereotypically be women’s domains. Whilst such statistical siloes as measures of progress are useful, the status and social condition of women must also be considered holistically within a rights-based and structural context.

As Audre Lorde cites, the oppressive social, economic, political and cultural conditions that impact the vast majority of women and girls are intersectionally[2] constructed and interlinked, and as we will argue- have been accelerated by advanced capitalism and the neo-liberal political and legislative agenda. Lorde was one of many black feminists to have consistently highlighted the structural nature of gender inequality where black and minoritised women are often deliberately kept at the margins of society, under-represented and ‘shackled’ by a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that is reified or reinforced by policy, legislation and public state sanctions which both reproduce and collude with the status quo. In order to achieve equality today, we must address not only the mechanisms of the state and its apparatus (including public policy) but have the ambition to centre any woman that is silenced or ‘unfree’ in our struggle for societal transformation.


"States shall take appropriate measures to ensure the full development and advancement of women so as to guarantee them the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on the basis of equality to men”.

(Article 3 of the CEDAW Convention)


Article 3 of CEDAW sets out to achieve international state compliance in the eradication of structural inequality-socially, institutionally and culturally –and the implementation of its duty to secure rights, freedoms and protections for women by preventing disadvantage. The convention ensures that compliant states act in such a way as to alleviate structural inequality within institutions, civil society or other cultural manifestations. The Equalities Act 2010 is often referenced[3] in the UK as a way to demonstrate the UK’s state commitment to equality and in turn the disparities in gender equality. Introduced by New Labour in its 2005 manifesto, during the party’s extensive neoliberal structural adjustment period, this act updated and consolidated 116 individual legislations that included the Equal Pay, Sex and Disability Discrimination and Race Relations Acts. Within the Act, discrimination is described as less favourable treatment on the basis of 9 protected characteristics[4] in an effort to promote a ‘fair and more equal’ society. The Act references the responsibilities of the public sector under its inclusion of a public-sector equality duty[5] to reduce institutionalised inequalities, however it does not correlate state sanctioned inequality with societally embedded or normalised human rights abuses such as violence against women and girls. It has an individualistically interrogative focus on holding state apparatus to account (with limited powers) with an impetus on enquiries into public sector inequality rather than legal and legislatively embedded duties.

In Geneva in February 2019, the international CEDAW committee once again criticised the presiding UK government in its failure to address intersecting forms of oppression and often institutionally and state sanctioned inequalities in its concluding written observations[6] the committee stated:


“The Committee remains concerned about the limitations of the public sector equality duty under the Equality Act to effectively protect women from discrimination, including intersecting forms of discrimination, and regrets the lack of progress made to bring into force the provisions of the Act relating to the public sector duty regarding socioeconomic inequalities (sections 1 to 3 of the Act) and the recognition of “combined discrimination”

(Section 14 of the Act)


This crucially denotes the significant difference between the Equality Act 2010 and the CEDAW Convention. As the 2019 CEDAW Committee evidenced the Equality Act 2010 does not address structural inequality in the UK, there are no rooted mechanisms inscribed in the act that will lead to any transformative action around, for instance, socio-economic gender parity or legislative safeguards for institutional reform; in short it does not fundamentally change the status quo. Instead the Equality Act 2010 focuses on oppression and discrimination as being the product of abstract individual circumstances which then lead to disadvantage or inequality. While it places a duty on the public sector to alleviate disadvantage, it is the individual by recognising their protected characteristics, who replaces collective action with an individual demand for rights which are dictated by the interaction of individuals to a policy or institutional mechanism.


"New Labour has picked up where Thatcherism left off"

Stuart Hall, 2003[7]


To fully understand the weaknesses of the Equality Act 2010 constructed under New Labour’s neoliberalist agenda we must consider what Stuart Hall referred to as New Labour’s ‘transformation of social democracy into a particular variant of free market neo-liberalism’ which saw a ‘reversal of the [UK’s] historic commitment to equality, universality and collective social provision’[8]. Inequality within the confines of this neo-liberalist socio economic structuring (free trade, privatization and restricted trade union power) continues to have a domino like effect where an individualized response to oppression vis a vis ineffective policies and institutional discrimination. If we are to attempt to ‘reclaim equalities’ without a fundamental dismantling of Neo-liberal economic and white supremacist patriarchal social structures and ideologies then the UK will continue to disproportionally disadvantage and directly oppress black and minoritised women often surviving on the invisible margins or society.  For the ‘glass ceiling’ women privileged in their class, economic and cultural status -equalities has served to give free access to institutional ‘participation’ with great socio-economic reward but it is often subsidized by the economic, physical and psychic exploitation of minoritised women. In this context neoliberalism prevents collective action, solidarity and community favouring individualisation by eroding the collective rights of women workers. And let us not forget that with neoliberalism, came the dismantling of the welfare state and the feminisation of poverty.

The need for a transformation of the corporate world whose growth relies upon inequality reproducing itself through state sanctioned mechanisms is best exemplified by the disproportionate number of women on zero hours contracts[9] [10]This growing segment of the workforce is one where many migrant, poor and other disenfranchised women are located and their exploitation and vulnerability exacerbated by their experience of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence. Often working in isolation without union support or any adherence to basic workers’ rights, an infrastructural sector of society is invisibilised and their working arrangements offer very little protection, if any at all. A complaint by a woman of harsh working hours or sexual harassment is enough for her to be fired from her work without recourse. As the majority of women in these circumstances are working in two or three jobs to ensure livelihoods for their families, these inequalities directly affect their children and the people they care for [11]

The importance of the CEDAW Convention is its recognition of the impact of State policies and institutions, and other behaviours of the State as having a disproportionate impact on women, particularly minoritised women, it adopts an intersectional legislative approach recognising that the root cause of inequality for women is patriarchy interlinked as it is with capitalism, ecocide, racism and colonisation.[12] The UK’s ‘fragmented and uneven legislative framework on the rights of women and girls’[13] reifies the need for a radical societal transformation if not the dismantling of the neo-liberalised ideological state. As the UK moves toward its own version of accelerated free market capitalism and ecological destruction we can consider CEDAW to be a strategic pillar of hope on the road to a collectivist (black) feminist revolution.

 


Authors

Rosie Lewis is the Deputy Director of the Angelou Centre and manages the organisation’s Violence Against Black Women and Girls (VABWG) services. Rosie has an extensive background in advocacy work with women seeking asylum and vulnerable children and young people having worked in both strategic and frontline roles in the VAWG sector. Rosie is a qualified and trained IDVA and ISVA who is educated to post-graduate level (Masters in Research) and is currently working towards her PhD at Durham University. She has over 17 years of advocacy experience assessing and supporting women and children who are subject to domestic and sexual violence and at risk of harm. Rosie has been involved in social justice, DIY organizing (arts and music) and feminist activism for over 25 years. She is an experienced fundraiser and has been commissioned to write regional and national consultation documents.

Baljit Banga is Executive Director at Imkaan. She was formerly the Director of London Black Women’s Project where she worked from 2007 to 2019 focusing on sustainability and strategic development of a black women’s frontline organisation supporting women and girls under an intersectional framework. Baljit has extensive experience in VAWG strategy, advocacy, planning and policy work.  She is completing her doctorate at the University in Bath at the Institute of Policy Research at the Department of Social and Policy Sciences. The focus of her studies are gender, race, women’s rights and social policy.  

 


References

[1]  One measure of a country’s response to gender equality is the EU league tables which are published regularly comparing EU country results and providing a report card on performance.

[2] We consider intersectionality to be a black feminist concept, named by Kimberley Crenshaw (1989), but theoretically developed years in advance of this by a previous generation of black feminist collectives OWAAD(UK) and the Combahee River Collective (US) and a multitude of prominent activists such as Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Angela Davis, Olive Morris and Pragna Patel.

[3] We say ‘referenced’ rather than ‘used’ as it is a principle oft cited and rarely effectively upheld in the implementation of public policy and practice.

[4] Under The Equality Act 2010 the 9 protected characteristics are determined to be; age, disability, gender, marriage, pregnancy, race, religion, sex and sexuality.

[5] This followed on from public enquiries into institutional failings to address discrimination, such as the 2001 Macpherson report citing the MET’s institutional racism in their investigative failures following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. However this public enquiry was not spearheaded by state institutions but a groundswell of anti-racist activism and political campaigning led by the warrior spirit of Doreen Lawrence.

[6] Published in March 2019 the Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be found here: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW/C/GBR/CO/8&Lang=En

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2003/aug/06/society.labour

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2003/aug/06/society.labour

[9] In 2017 the ONS stated that the number of individuals living on Zero hours contracts had increased fivefold to 900,000 between 2016 and 2017.

[10] It could also be demonstrated by the further post Thatcher legacy of the dsimantement of the welfare state and introduction of Universal Credit which has further disproportionately disadvantaged women and children and was introduced ideologically by Lord Freud under the neo-liberal preserves of the early noughties Blair led Labour government.

[11] Because of the neoliberal framing of equalities, disenfranchisement is par for the course, for example, the Equality Act 2010 considers that an institution meets its equality duty if it says that black and minoritised women can access their services. The public sector does not consider the systemic imposed barriers and exclusions black and minority women face from non-specialist services that inhibit their “full development and achievement”.  If this is considered in the context of violence against women and girls, the resulting inequality increases repeat and secondary victimisation and domestic homicide. 

[12] New Labour’s backing of the US instigated and  Iraq War is an example of the disconnection of the neoliberal equalities agenda during New Labour and the UK Right wing’s imperialist conquest which  genocide, ecocide, trans global corporate greed and the ‘collateral damage’ resulting in the deaths of by moderate estimates 600,000 people, in 2009 it was noted by the New England Journal of Medicine that 46% of people murdered by US air strikes  were women and 39% were children.

[13] Published in March 2019 the Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be found here: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW/C/GBR/CO/8&Lang=En