Feminist Responses to Austerity in Europe

Women are hit twice by austerity – as workers in sectors double affected by structural reforms and as social security recipients. This is demonstrated by case studies from ten European countries commissioned by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in 2017. Despite recent growth accelerations, the European economies do not live up to their promise of ending austerity. Poverty remains a daunting scenario for large parts of the population, aggravated by insecure and low-paid employment, shrinking social security provisions, and inaccessible health care. Left-wing feminists are well too aware of this situation and of the urgency to articulate a common answer to these issues.

The de facto policies developed in response to the 2008 debt and financial crisis remain a helpful starting point for analyzing the effects of austerity on women. However, it is important not to limit our examination to the last decade. It is neoliberal policies that brought about the financial and economic collapse of 2008 in the first place, and neoliberalism has been responsible for raising inequalities from its very beginnings. Hence, there is no turning back to the alleged "good old days" before the crisis. On the contrary, the crisis must be seen as a cumulative event sounding the end of an era. The window for implementing a new model is closing quickly, though.

With this in mind, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the left fraction in the European Parliament, GUE/NGL, brought together academics, politicians and think tank representatives for an exchange of knowledge and ideas to bring forward a feminist response to the impacts of years of austerity. By example of the Spanish, Greek and Irish case studies, inputs from authors focused on recommendations on how to bring a feminist perspective to economic and social policies in order to permanently improve the situation of women. With their particular focus on political practice representatives of the GUE/NGL responded with a view to specific policy fields where action needs to be taken. The debate concentrated on policy recommendations that emerged as common ground from the three case studies.

The relationship between paid employment and social security benefits: As the labor market does not provide sufficient employment, income and right to care for many women, a social security system based on contributions from paid employment does not sufficiently protect women from poverty. The left in Europe should be bold enough to discuss and build social policies that decouple work and service provisions in the face of increasingly structural precariousness that impacts women the most.

Sufficient and secure jobs: The evident changes of the labor market have caused much of the precarious and unsecure employment mostly taken up by women, but precisely for this reason it needs to be restructured. The right to good quality work with minimum hours and strong trade unions must remain a central demand from the left.

Both aspects were discussed in particular with a view to women experiencing multiple (intersecting) dimensions of marginalization (refugees, migrants, homeless, Roma, out of job, women in unofficial employment, to name but a few). A just political and economic transformation must guarantee adaptable rights to meet these women’s particular needs accordingly.

The balance between paid employment and other aspects of life: Radically reducing weekly working hours to 20 – 25 could help bring on the necessary changes in the relationship between paid employment and other aspects of life as it would provide all people with sufficient time for non-commodified activities (care, education, social relations, and political activities are only some examples). There needs to be a clear shift putting people at the center of all relations, turning away from the commodification of human lives and the environment.

Investment in the social infrastructure: It is evident that social care, health or education cannot be left to individuals. Substantial investment in high quality social infrastructures would re-institutionalize public services and not only provide good employment but also reverse the still ongoing push for privatization of public goods and services.

As long as economic divisions remain, implementation of these approaches must be based on a political economy analysis in each country as well as of the European Union with its own guidelines and legal requirements, from a decidedly feminist perspective. This constitutes the most urgent groundwork for the necessary fight against austerity and for a just economic and social transformation. Yet implementation remains a formidable task.

In light of the ideological backlash that is taking hold in many European countries due to stronger religious or right-wing actors it is essential to overcome class divisions. Common issues arising from austerity need to find their articulation in feminist struggles. Intersections with other struggles, such as the mobilization for ecological transformation, also need to be made a reality. Those struggles are often being led by women who care for their communities and this can be seen as a good starting point for creating inclusive feminist movements.

The biggest question that remained in the room was how to include those women into the debate who are most affected by the austerity measures in Europe. Their problems are far too often interpreted as individual experiences of poverty and discrimination while they really apply to many women finding themselves in similar situations. The challenge of articulating those issues as feminist ones and mobilizing groups who until now are not thinking in feminist terms needs to be addressed. The feminist strike that has gained support in several European countries can serve as an example. In Spain the strike successfully united different feminist movements and mobilized individual women to join the struggle.

However, all those necessary fights for transformation can only be won by strong and innovative left parties and unions in Europe who are resolute enough to stand their ground vis-à-vis the capitalist system. To unite the many, left parties and unions need to feminize their politics: taking the various voices of women into account and seeking out the most vulnerable are corner stones to build a real alternative.

care, feminism, neoliberalism