Something which the Government failed to mention in its recent, polished figures is that female unemployment is at its highest for twenty five years. Women’s organisations are pointing out that austerity measures unfairly target women, by making cuts to child benefits at a time when childcare and household bills are rapidly increasing, whilst those that do have jobs still get paid less than men (in 2010, in the public sector – which one may imagine to be the least discriminatory employer – the pay gap between men and women was still an incredible 21%).
An interesting article in Drink and Drug News this month considers the impact of austerity on female drug users. I touched on the stigma faced by women who use substances in Baby wants a double vodka, but this article looks at the effects of the cuts to service provision, given the complexities that often come hand-in-hand with being a woman with a drug problem.
As Caroline Lucas MP points out, women’s substance misuse is often more complicated than men’s, regularly associated with parental and sexual stigmatisation and shame, childcare issues, domestic abuse and prostitution. Yet these specific needs were omitted entirely from the 2010 Drug Strategy, and the ‘bulk-buying” approach to commissioning has meant that gender nuances are now ignored.
The women’s drug service in our area has vanished during the cuts, and their work absorbed by generic drug workers who have less capacity for home visits and parenting work. Many of their clients, who have experienced issues such as sexual abuse, may now need to be seen by male workers, unless they have the confidence to make demands (confidence not being a trait often associated with this group – neither the balance of power when your script depends on it). And whereas having a family may be seen as increasing someone’s ‘recovery capital’, is this necessarily the same when, for women, this may include single parenthood and domestic abuse?
Attempts to maintain and develop best practice are further stretched as fewer staff mean workloads increase – and research into joint-working models has exposed that workers who attempt a multi-agency approach to supporting women often report having to hide this from their managers, as the extra work they do cannot be directly evidenced statistically and so is considered ‘out-of-remit’.
And then there’s what social worker Gretchen Precey has tagged ‘start again syndrome’ – the desire to see every woman’s pregnancy or birth as a fresh start. The dilemma working with this client group is balancing the constant need for motivation and positivity, the belief in the possibility of change, with prioritising the needs of helpless foetuses and babies. As workers, when we see chaos, we often understand vulnerability – and we desperately focus on the glint of positive in the shit pile of someone’s life. But to ignore a woman’s past experiences of motherhood is dangerous, warns Precey – and in a culture where professionals are blamed for any harm that comes to a child (as though, I always feel, they are the perpetrators), workers are left to balance hope against risk. It creates a moral clash. These are the cases that keep you awake at night.
Almost ten years ago, I was involved in a consultation on the Government’s white paper, Paying the Price, which looked at how best to manage prostitution. It seems sad that, years later, the comments I made then ring truer than ever. My point was – the links between child abuse and sex work are well-documented, and yet Social Care are increasingly under-funded and over-stretched. What was once a support service now exists almost exclusively for the purpose of risk management. And so, whether we consider female sex workers, female drug misusers, or women who struggle with motherhood, the common themes remain the same – and as long as we fail to address the root causes of these issues, we are producing the next generation exhibiting these behaviours. The chain continues.
And some of you will know how it feels to see the kids you tried to protect all those years ago arriving at your door with baby bumps, track marks and utter disgust at the world.