Reposted from thejournal.ie.
By Elizabeth Madden
Over two weeks ago, a video clip emerged of a female protestor who banged on the bonnet of Taoiseach Enda Kennys car and shouted “out, out, out”. Without hesitation, three members of the Garda Síochána picked the woman up and threw her against a bollard. The woman in question was taking part in an anti-water charges protest outside Mansion House in Dublin city centre.
When asked what her motive was, the woman claimed she was ‘’aiming to ensure her son’s future’’.
As a mother whose life has also been significantly impacted by austerity cuts, I could relate to the words of the female protestor.
Women and children affected
Over the past number of years, the Government has introduced a number of austerity cuts that have directly affected women and children. These cuts include reductions to child benefit, back to school clothing and footwear allowance, rent allowance, fuel allowance and cuts to home help hours. As a result, growing numbers of women are fighting back against Government cuts by attending protests, taking a stand and having their voices heard.
I have been side-by-side with many of these women actively protesting and speaking publicly about the worrying growth in poverty amongst women, which has become the phenomenon known as ‘The Feminisation of Poverty’.
The feminisation of poverty, which has been studied for over 40 years, describes the increasing trend in poverty amongst women in developing countries. The theory suggests that female-headed households are progressively falling below the poverty line due to lack of income and employment opportunities. Other contributing factors include race, ethnicity, marital status, social class and educational backgrounds.
In Ireland, single mothers are the main group who are increasingly being affected by poverty, and the reason being is that their income is insufficient to rear children.
According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, in 2012, 34% of births in Ireland were to single mothers.
Almost 90% of one parent families are women, and 13% of men parent alone. Lone fathers outnumber single mothers in the work-force and are less likely to claim welfare. One-parent families are more than twice as likely to be affected by poverty than two-parent families.
A number of anti-poverty organisations including, OPEN, Barnardos and the National Women’s Council of Ireland, publish frequent reports revealing the alarming impact that poverty is having on single parents and their children.
Stigma and deprivation
Poverty is a deprivation of resources caused by a number of factors including unemployment, lack of education and physical and mental health problems. Even a woman’s age and location can impact on her income status. The effects of poverty include debt, poor health, unemployment and social exclusion. Another component of poverty and one that is frequently associated with single mothers is stigma.
In looking back at Irish history, single mothers have always been mistreated by State and society. From the 18th to the late 20th centuries many single mothers were institutionalised and sent to asylums and laundries to ‘repent in silence’.
Single mothers were termed as ‘fallen women’ and their children were known as ‘illegitimate’. Exploited as they worked for free, single mothers remained poor, and even when they were discharged, they continued to be rejected by society and endured a life of poverty, deprivation and discrimination.
In the 1970s women’s groups lobbied the Government to provide financial relief to single mothers. A payment entitled Unmarried Mothers Allowance was introduced in 1973 which was £8.50 per week.
The Irish State have not always held fathers accountable for the upbringing of their children and as a result, many single mothers raised their children alone. The Growing up in Ireland survey 2013, identified that 50% of fathers made no financial contribution to the maintenance of their child. Single mothers assume full responsibility for the finances, health, education and general care of their children. Many single mothers continue to take on the ‘full parent’ role today, which effectively contributes to the feminisation of poverty.
The welfare trap
The current welfare payment for single mothers is titled the One Parent Family Payment (OPFP) and has been in effect since 1997. The payment which has recently come under reform, does not require all claimants to actively seek employment. Many believe this causes long-term dependency. Long-term dependency essentially deepens poverty and creates what is known as the ‘welfare trap’.
Once in the welfare cycle, many women find it difficult to leave as they have few alternative choices. The Combat Poverty Agency claims that 47% of lone parents under 35 have Junior Cert level education only. Educational attainment is directly linked to labour market participation; therefore women who have lower levels of education are less employable and more likely to enter low-paid low-skilled jobs. With the added pressure of high childcare costs there is little or no financial incentive to work in low-paid employment.
Welfare payments succeed in providing financial assistance, but fail to tackle the root causes of poverty. In order to reduce poverty and help women transition from welfare to work, the State will need to invest in areas of education, training and childcare.
Investment in education
In regards to childcare, The National Women’s council of Ireland are advocating a State subsidised childcare system which would effectively reduce poverty and enhance female participation in the labour market. By providing single mothers with childcare facilitates it enables them to partake in, and remain in employment.
Regarding education and training, any investment in education will effectively reduce poverty and increase women’s economic contribution. Training will enable women to upskill, learn new skills and in effect, enhance their opportunities to become more employable.
In the age of austerity, it is evident that female-led households have been affected more than any other group. Amongst the necessary changes that the Government needs to adapt, we as a society need to develop a more enlightened and informed view of single mothers. We have to challenge the negative perceptions that are associated with single parenting, and draw attention to the many essential roles which single mothers undertake that keep both families and communities alive.
Liz Madden is a graduate of the MA in Women’s Studies UCC and currently teaches in Adult and Community Education. She is a community activist and a co-organiser of Cork Feminista, a Cork based feminist group.