‘This story rarely gets told’: 10 years of women’s resistance to austerity across Europe

From the UK to Greece, women have been hit hardest by austerity policies since the 2008 financial crisis. This month, 50.50 will spotlight our stories of resistance.

Nandini Archer
13 September 2018

Women protest for equal pay and dignity at work in Barcelona, March 2018.

Women protest for equal pay and dignity at work in Barcelona, March 2018 | Ramon Costa/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

I was 17 and dating a particularly sexist boyfriend when the Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, sparking the global financial crisis and reshaping the world we live in. A decade on, I’ve lived the entirety of my ‘millennial’ adult life under austerity in the UK – and have found strength and friendship from families of resistance that women have created in response to years of harmful policies.

“This story rarely gets told,” said Akwugo Emejulu, political sociologist at the University of Warwick, referring to the resistance strategies of women of colour in particular. “Many activist women of colour are rendered invisible by their insistence on doing local community work,” she said, contrasting high-profile occupations such as Occupy London and Los Indignados with our “under the radar” organising.

Over the last decade, women across Europe have responded to austerity policies imposed on us since the 2008 crisis. We’ve fought to expose and challenge the specific impacts of austerity on women, creating new communities in the process, from Sisters Uncut in the UK to Mwasi Collective (Paris) and Soul Sisters (Berlin).

These collectives, led by women of colour, are among Europe’s “most exciting and innovative,” says Emejulu. “They combine hard-nosed grassroots activism with cultural production to organise […] and also create new cultural and artistic spaces by and for women of colour,” she explains, emphasising that resistance also consists of “self-help groups and sister circles where community and friendship can be built”.

Crucially, women, migrants, working-class communities, people living with disabilities, non-binary and trans people aren’t passive victims to harmful economic policies: they resist. It’s this resistance that 50.50 will spotlight this month, in an alternative series to mark the tenth anniversary of the financial crisis, including special reports from Spain and Italy and a photo essay.

A decade on, I’ve lived the entirety of my ‘millennial’ adult life under austerity in the UK.

I remember well the years following the financial crash – the horror of the coalition government coming to power in 2010 and student marches against rising tuition fees. But I was never massively taken by student politics, which I found male-dominated.

It wasn’t until 2014 when a friend dragged me to a protest that I felt politically at home. It was organised by Sisters Uncut – a feminist group that uses creative direct actions to highlight austerity as state violence.

On Valentine’s Day, we brought London’s busy Oxford Circus intersection to a standstill. Dressed in funeral attire and holding placards saying ‘They Cut, We Bleed’, we read out the names of some of the hundreds of women in the UK who have lost their lives to domestic violence since 2010.

I remember being struck by the range of their ages, ethnicities and locations. Every week, two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner in this country. Meanwhile, government cuts to domestic violence services and refuges have made it harder for many, and potentially impossible for some, to leave violent relationships.

While initial reports described the crisis as a “mancession“, focusing on men’s jobs at risk, the burden of austerity has fallen largely on women. As elsewhere in Europe, women in the UK use more public services; they are the majority of welfare benefit recipients, and the majority of public-sector workers; they’re also more likely to make up for lost public services with unpaid care work.

Sisters Uncut protest in June 2016 outside parliament.

Sisters Uncut protest in June 2016 outside parliament | Niku Gupta

Sisters Uncut’s ‘feministo’ list of demands begins: “To those in power, our message is this: your cuts are violent, your cuts are dangerous, and you think that you can get away with them because you have targeted people who you perceive as powerless. We are those people. We are Sisters Uncut. We will not be silenced.”

Since 2014, we’ve blossomed into a national movement. Our actions have taken many forms – and have left us feeling exhilarated, united in our resistance, powerful and dangerous. We blocked Westminster bridge in 2016, for instance, in a symbolic protest against cuts to domestic violence services. We also reclaimed an empty council flat in east London and turned it into a community centre.

Last year, we occupied the former Holloway women’s prison in north London to demand that it become a domestic violence service, rather than luxury flats. This February, we stormed the BAFTAs’ red carpet to call ‘Times Up’ on UK prime minister Theresa May for years of devastating austerity policies.

While initial reports described the crisis as a ‘mancession’, focusing on men’s jobs at risk, the burden of austerity has fallen largely on women.

Across Europe, women have challenged waves of austerity policies and cuts to public services. They’ve led protests, occupied buildings, organised for employment rights and formed new communities of resistance, support and solidarity.

Women protest an eviction in Rome, August 2017.

Women protest an eviction in Rome, August 2017 | NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

In Montenegro, thousands of mothers demonstrated in February 2017 against cuts of 25% to financial assistance for women with three or more children. Dozens camped outside government offices overnight. The new policy, they said, would impact more than 21,000 women. They held placards reading “Gentlemen from the government, beware of the women — mothers” and “Our children are hungry.”

Women also camped outside government offices in Greece after hundreds of cleaners were dismissed from (newly outsourced) jobs in 2014, amid European Union austerity demands. The cleaners drew attention to their specific experiences as middle-aged women and adopted the symbol of a rubber glove with two fingers forming a V for ‘victory’. They also travelled to Strasbourg to lobby members of the European Parliament. In 2015, the new Greek government reinstated their jobs.

Workers’ rights have also been won at SOAS and LSE universities in the UK through the ‘justice for cleaners’ campaigns, as the workforce (made-up of mostly migrant women), has demanded better wages, sick leave and to be employed in-house.

As part of 50.50’s series, journalist Claudia Torrisi will report from Rome where many families live in occupied buildings amid a “housing emergency”. In the Viale del Policlinico occupation, 140 people of different nationalities (including children, women and old people) live in constant fear of eviction.

From Spain, journalist Rocío Ros will profile the ‘Las Kellys’ movement of hotel cleaners who have mobilised for better working conditions and against the outsourcing of their jobs. Their recent campaign promotes hotels with fair employment practices (and shames those without them), calling on the popular travel website TripAdvisor to adopt the Las Kellys ‘seal of approval’.

Members of Las Kellys at an event in August 2017.

Members of Las Kellys at an event in August 2017 | Diario de Madrid/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0

I asked Emejulu, at the University of Warwick, specifically about the experiences of women of colour living under, and mobilising against, austerity.

She said they “have been all but erased from the narrative about who has been hit hardest by the crisis and austerity, who is organising to reverse these counter-productive cuts and who should be the target of policy action to address the misery that has been created because of the rollback of the social welfare state.”

Why? “Firstly and most importantly, there is a relentless focus on local conditions in neighbourhoods,” she said, giving as examples the community organising of women of colour against “the closure of community centres, the increasingly dirty streets and parks, the struggle for affordable housing and the cuts to benefits”.

Meanwhile, Emejulu stresses, where women of colour “are routinely dismissed as alien Others”, their local organising and “creation of spaces of collective affirmation and solidarity is radical politics”.

Where women of colour ‘are routinely dismissed as alien Others’, their organising and ‘creation of spaces of collective affirmation and solidarity is radical politics’.

In London, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) is one example of a community group that creates space for migrant women who feel increasingly isolated due to the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies coupled with austerity.

LAWRS provides advice, information, counselling and advocacy services for Latin American women, and safe spaces to talk about their experiences and interests. “By organising around issues that matter to the women, they regain the power that they feel they have lost to an abusive system,” coordinator Ornella Ospino told me.

Through LAWRS, Ospino says, women migrant workers in precarious jobs have followed Latin American ancestral practices of collective support, offering advice on unions, resisting immigration raids and assisting with job searches. Survivors of domestic violence have organised to advise each other on how to navigate services.

Anti-austerity protest in London, June 2015 amid the evictions of most residents from a Barnet housing estate.

Anti-austerity protest in London amid the evictions of most residents from a Barnet housing estate, June 2015 | Alan Stanton/Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Also in London is Focus E15, formed in 2013 by 29 single mothers. After being served eviction notices and deemed ‘intentionally homeless’ for refusing to take accommodation offered in other cities, far from their communities, they occupied empty council flats. Developers eventually withdrew from planned sales.

The group continues to fight for better housing conditions for single mothers in east London. They organise an open-mic every week outside a local shopping centre where people can take the microphone and share their stories.

It’s important to support people “to have the confidence to directly challenge their circumstances,” said Saskia, one of the women involved in Focus E15.

“Their voice is very important, and they have a right to express anger about their situation and lead their struggle,” she said, adding: “We have become a solid family who share organising, thrash out differences, yet continue!”

‘We have become a solid family who share organising, thrash out differences, yet continue!’

The community spaces we’ve created at Sisters Uncut are among the most radical actions we’ve taken. They expose (and respond to) the absence of community contact we all feel in this neoliberal, austerity-stricken society.

As part of this collective, I feel I am part of a resistance to the government’s austerity agenda. It’s here that I’ve now formed some of my closest friends and networks – both of my (biological) sisters even organise with Sisters Uncut.

The pernicious austerity policies of the last decade were not passed unopposed. Overlooking the resistance of women has enabled a “tired narrative of equating economic crisis with right-wing populism” that Emejulu argues “doesn’t hold water”.

“If it did,” she asks, “what explains this flourishing of European Black feminist activism among those women who are in long-term economic crisis?”

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