Unless the Welsh Government acts Covid-19 could erase the progress we’ve made for women
Sian Gwenllian, Plaid Cymru Member of the Senedd for Arfon
Two years ago First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, announced that he wanted to see Wales as the first feminist country in Europe and the safest place to be a woman.
Since then, the Women’s Equality Network has been tracking progress having identified the areas Welsh Government can influence and today the second Feminist Scorecard was published in a virtual meeting of 50 delegates hosted by myself and Suzy Davies as co-chairs of the Senedd’s Cross-Party Group on Women.
The danger is that any small steps taken in the right direction over the past two years will disappear as the clock is turned backwards as a result of the present crisis. More and more women will seek help against violent partners and the childcare sector, so vital to women, is being forgotten in the crisis with many providers saying they won’t be around when lock-down is lifted.
Hopefully it is not all doom and gloom. Perhaps, only perhaps, the pandemic will lead to a change in attitudes and key workers will be respected and paid according to their worth in the future and women will undoubtedly benefit should this be the case.
Women make up a large proportion of key workers. Women make up 80% of those employed as health and social care workers. The Women’s Equality Network has identified the gender pay gap as one of the six themes that needs to be addressed urgently in order to advance equality. The gender pay gap stands at 14.5% in Wales. A pay rise for social care workers, real term wage increases for NHS workers and an end to zero-hours contracts could see that pay gap begin to diminish. This may just be that little bit more achievable after the Covid crisis is over.
Another of the themes identified by WEN is domestic violence against women. This stubbornly persists as a sign of deep inequality which is at the heart of our society. Too many men see women as their property that they can abuse physically and mentally. The small steps that have been taken in the right direction are in danger of disappearing. When we come out of this lock-down, many more women will seek refuge and support.
In a typical week, Wales’ police forces will see 200 cases of domestic violence a week. Worryingly, at the start of the crisis, less cases were being reported: not because there were less incidents but because women found it difficult to report. When we come out of lock-down, that number will surge. Will our services be able to cope?
The Welsh Government needs to be preparing now for that increased demand. Last year 512 women were turned away from refuges compared to 431 the previous year. The system was not coping then and so it’s vital that the right support be in place in anticipation of the big increase in demand post-Covid.
Another sector that must be supported more robustly by the Welsh Government during this time of crisis is our childcare sector. Due to their mixed public, private and charitable status there are many childcare settings that are struggling to obtain government funding, place their staff on furlough, and secure the future of the setting. It’s a sector that is falling through the cracks. Bespoke financial support packages need to be put in place, before its too late.
Otherwise, when people start returning to work, there won’t be enough childcare provision and undoubtedly, it’ll be the women who will stay at home. The small strides made so far will have disappeared with the bat of an eyelid.
The WEN event gave organisations from across Wales an opportunity to highlight these current challenges. We must hold on to the vision of Wales as a feminist country and we must insist that gender inequalities be addressed. We need ambitious policy interventions and a renewed focus on action and implementation.