This year marks the centenary of partial women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, when some women won the right to vote. 100 years on only 11 out of 40 Welsh MPs are women. In 2003, the National Assembly for Wales made waves as the first legislature to achieve 50:50 gender balance, however has slipped back since then.
Research conducted by the House of Commons Library shows that between 2010 and now, 86% of the burden of austerity has fallen on women and this is set to rise considerably by 2020. According to the Women Budget Group, lone mothers representing 92% of lone parents are set to lose £8,790 per year and will experience an average drop in living standards of 18%.
The introduction of Universal Credit (UC) has a further detrimental effect on women and their families. Not only is UC changing the structure of families and increasing the dependency of some mothers on their male partner, as a rule a greater proportion of women’s income is made up of benefits. For example, over fifty percent of housing benefit claimants in Wales are one-adult families and women. Even before taking the cost of childcare into consideration, the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that a single parent, working full time on the current ‘national living wage’ of £7.20 an hour, will have to work the equivalent of two extra months each year to make up for the loss of income due to the changes to the work allowance under UC.
After a decade of Westminster-led austerity, we desperately need spaces that build up, empower and protect women and communities. But existing organisations working with and providing essential services to women in Cardiff and Wales, are cut to the bone and are struggling to meet demand, not least Welsh Women’s Aid, BAWSO and Women Connect First.
International Women’s Day events this year linked in with the Global Women’s Strike, a movement calling for solidarity between women – women of colour, indigenous, working class, disabled, migrant, Muslim, lesbian, queer and trans women. Women and their allies in Wales joined demonstrations in 50 countries who staged walk-outs and/or met on the street. It was a public display of strength and resistance. If striking is the weapon of those who work, then the Global Women’s Strike is a challenge to the assumption that women’s labour, both in the workplace and in the home, should be underpaid, undervalued or performed for free and with a smile. It goes back to the suffragettes who after decades of peaceful and reasonable campaigning by the suffragists adopted the motto ‘Deeds Not Words’.
Wales has a long and proud tradition of Women’s activism and campaigning, but 100 years after the suffragettes, women joining the Global Women Strike are equally exhausted from telling the same stories over and over again. Years of rapidly increasing insecurity and inequality, paired with rising living costs and sustained cuts to public services, have disproportionately affected women, BAME and working class women at that.
The Global Women’s Strike is a call to and for action. Moreover, arguably mere survival is not enough for women, men, families and for Wales as a country. To put it in the words of one of the most prominent woman labour movement leaders, American socialist and feminist Rose Schneiderman ‘the worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too’.
As part of its International Women’s Day celebration, Cardiff hosted the ‘A Room of One’s Own’ Pop-Up Women’s Arts Centre located at Cathays Community Centre from 9th March to 11th March 2018. Organised by Cardiff Sisters of Solidarity, a Women’s group campaigning against austerity and paid for through crowdfunding, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ showcased the work of women and non-binary artists. The event presented a varied programme of music, banner-making, a book launch, dance, women’s art and radical self-care workshops as well as food and opportunities for debate. Radical self-care refers to the idea that caring for yourself is not self-indulgence, but a necessity to keep going and looking after anyone else. For women, who often find themselves in the position of nurturers and carers, practicing self-love is essential.
Led by women but open to all individuals and community groups, it provided Cardiff’s women’s movement and activist scene with a temporary home and the opportunities to make connections, build alliances and take action on the many intersecting issues affecting women in Wales and worldwide. The response of both women offering to exhibit their work and running workshops as well as those attending was a true reflection of Cardiff’s diversity and overwhelmingly positive.
Apart from celebrating International Women’s Day in the year of the centenary of partial women’s suffrage, the pop-up Women’s Arts Centre also had wider strategic objectives. Together with the street celebrations on 8th March, the ‘A Room of One’s Own’ Pop-up Women’s Art Centre aimed to provide a space for Cardiff the and surrounding areas’ Women’s Movement and Activist scene to meet, attend diverse events and build community. Despite the tremendous opportunities of social media to connect people, educate and raise awareness across the world, the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns being only two examples, online activism requires real-life follow-up to have a lasting impact.
A human need for tangible community and spaces that empower, protect and connect remains. This is particularly true for women. Women who are not only disproportionately affected by austerity as well as sexual and gender-based violence, but who are also socialised into and take on much of the caring for others. For Wales to be a country that works for and benefits everyone, we need more vibrant community-led spaces to celebrate, educate and empower people to make real connections. “A Room of One’s Own” was an attempt to make activism accessible to a variety of groups including parents, carers and other groups underrepresented in the women’s and activist movements through creating central, affordable, inclusive and family friendly events. The success of the Pop-up Women’s Centre and the overwhelming positive response from those who participated and attended, made a powerful case for long-term, accessible and affordable community spaces.
The Women’s Marches in January 2017, the #MeToo and #Timesup campaigns showing the epidemic proportion of sexual harassment and abuse and the growing support for the Global Women’s Strike Movement are only the beginning. It’s time for a change and for sustainable community development for the empowerment of Welsh women and communities to make real and lasting change.
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