The Guardian Women in Leadership Blog

“For the millions of women living close to the poverty line, this election could represent a turning point in British politics”

Women’s lives are getting progressively worse. One in four women are in low paid and insecure work, while one in 12 of those are forced to access food banks to feed their children. Child benefit has been cut, as has childcare benefit. Childcare in the UK remains the most expensive in the EU and almost 750,000 women have been forced involuntarily into part-time work.

The situation is bleak for the millions of women living close to the poverty line. They rely disproportionately on housing and child benefit to make ends meet, and on childcare benefit to get out to work. The number of lone parents on job seeker’s allowance (JSA) hit 159,000 in 2013, up from 7,000 in 2008. 90% of lone parents are women.

These women are also disproportionately sanctioned against within the JSA system. Many lost their JSA when they couldn’t attend meetings because they had experienced violence, or were unable to get childcare, meaning working class women being forced into deeper and deeper poverty.

For women in work, inflation has risen faster than wages, and the gender pay gap remains at an abysmal 19%, (rising to 43% for the pension gap, putting older women’s lives into jeopardy). However, it is those who rely on benefits who are being disproportionately hit.

To ensure that the needs of all of the population are met, we need to see more diversity in our government to push these issues to the forefront. However, the sole aim of having more women in government can be arbitrary, if it’s the only aspect addressed.

Rwanda has the highest number of female parliamentarians in the world, which is an amazing achievement. This has been achieved through legislated quotas (similar to Labour’s all women shortlists, yielding 36% female MPs within the party, compared to 16% in the Conservative party). Yet the gender gap in Rwanda’s educational attainment places them 114th in the world, while the gender gap in health and survival rates places them in 118th place.

There are perhaps two things to take away from this. The first is that traditional political models are not necessarily conducive to women parliamentarians pushing a ‘gendered agenda’. The second is that change can only be achieved when female parliamentarians have a strong understanding of the disproportionate impact of policies upon women’s lives across the board, and are committed to delivering change.

Lacking this analysis and commitment, female politicians can easily be integrated into the establishment; aligning with the middle and upper class political elites. Thatcher is a strong example of this: rather than creating new models and structures which could bring about equality and open the door for other women, she sought to further the class-based structures that she and her political colleagues were profiting from.

By comparison, this election campaign cycle has been fascinating. ‘That hug’ by the three women leaders at the end of the five party debate was, for me, one of the most poignant moments in recent British political history.

The three fringe parties, challenging the mainstream, are led by women. The anti-austerity parties, refusing to make cuts off the back of the poorest, are led by women. The three parties that extended offers of collaboration to Ed Miliband are led by women. These women are talking about the most marginalised in our society on a daily basis, and are making commitments to improve the lives of women across the board.

This could be a turning point in British politics; a critical juncture at which women’s lives are pushed to the brink, to the point where the effects of austerity cannot be ignored, and at which there are more women leaders than ever before.

In the wider sense, however, a global longitudinal study found that it is not leftist parties, or women parliamentarians, or economic factors like GDP per capita that affect social policy relating to women. Instead, in the case of policy on violence against women, it is the mobilisation of women-only feminist groups in civil society that hold the key to change. Social movements, driven by women’s organisations, feed into policymaking and lobby to drive the agenda.

This is why 11 women’s organisations, led by the Women’s Resource Centre have come together to develop Fair Deal for Women; a campaign with seven asks of the next government, demanding that something be done about the increasing gap between men and women. So far our supporters include Natalie Bennett, Caroline Lucas, Beatrix Campbell and Bianca Jagger.

With continued support, we are hoping to drive a social movement that will see the women who are in the next parliament take action on the range of policies that have a disproportionate, negative impact upon women.

By Natalie Gyte