Following a performance of ‘Madame Geneva’ at the Lyric Theatre Belfast on Saturday 27th May, a discussion took place on ‘Women, Rape & Tax Credits: Government use of sexual violence against women in the context of Welfare Reform and the implied threat this sends out to women as a general narrative’.
Helen discussed the work of organisation Reclaim The Agenda; to engage women in decision-making through campaigning, protests, rallies and more. Helen says that as Reclaim The Agenda is not publicly funded, they are free to be vocal - to say the unsaid with no fear or threat to the organisation. One protest, named the ‘Empty Purse Protest’, carried the slogan ‘Politicians have plenty, our purses are empty.’ Reclaim the Agenda have a monthly television programme on NVTV which can be accessed here. One successful campaign resulted in change to the payment of Universal Credit which is now paid fortnightly and not monthly, unlike Universal Credit in the UK.
Helen highlighted impacts of the Child Credit Rape Clause which means that Child tax credits are only paid for the first two children for women receiving benefits. Further children receive no support unless women can prove they have been raped, making life unbearable for those living in poverty or in situations of domestic abuse. It has been documented that cases of rape occur within marriage seldom receive medical or criminal attention, nor are women supplied with access to safe abortions in NI. Outside of the already limited and scant resources for rape victims, the rape clause has deeply sinister implications for women in NI. Helen mentioned the obstacles women face to prove rape, the rubber stamp needed from medical professionals, police officers and more. One participant noted that the form itself is extremely difficult to complete. Helen emphasised that the system is deliberately designed to deter people from claiming benefits.
Dessie spoke about the origins of Participation and the Practice of Rights, founded by trade unionist, Inez McCormack in 2001, which uses a human-rights based approach alongside grassroots campaigning. People who need change and are living in difficulty should be able to fight for their own change, their voices should be heard. Dessie talked about PPR’s campaign ‘The People’s Proposal’, looking at benefit sanctions, and challenging the idea that we are powerless to fight welfare reform. Dessie noted that the play echoes the current narrative that poverty is your own making, and that we must reveal how complicit the government and linked organisations are. Decision making is farmed out to private companies who are not experts. Helen added that working people are also affected by welfare reform; we have no childcare strategy in NI, and we are vilifying poorer people.
The conversation turned to gender, and one participant reflected that men are deciding women’s fate, they are deciding who is bad, who is undeserving; women are bad for smoking, for being fat, for being pregnant. Helen said Reclaim the Agenda is helping women to fight, to mobilise, to speak out against these structures, but where do we go with no government? Dessie added that the intention is to deliberately deter vulnerable people from seeking help - we need to name it and call it out, and not underplay the magnitude of what’s happening. There exists a clear and conscious undermining of organisations, of unions, of support services. Helen told the group that her office was raided for abortion pills; she believes this an action to invoke fear and intimidate, but when you understand these tactics, it can be fought. Helen highlighted the double standards: Reclaim the Agenda are not permitted into schools but Precious Life are. One audience member suggested that women who are not pro-choice feel marginalised by militant feminism and that International Women’s Day should be for everyone. Helen responded saying that International Women’s Day is not about abortion, it is about celebrating women and that there is more that unites women than divides.
The big question is: Has anything changed? Women need to fight to be more involved in decision making. Men can be our greatest allies. Dessie advised men to ask wome what their experience is, what they need, and how they can help; with humility, not to replicate the structure. Helen said women aren’t currently valued, and when women are, things will actually begin to change. It seems that when women are vocal, they are perceived as militant; when men are vocal, they are passionate.
A participant commented that theatre is an interesting and effective way to give perspective, amplify voices, and reach people who don’t engage in other ways. Another participant from the US applauded the panel for fighting and said that rights in the US are currently threatened. Both Dessie and Helen raised the idea that NI has a democratic deficit and that structural change is needed. Political parties make empty promises and aren’t held accountable.
Final comments from Helen: Change is slow. Look at the long term. Make small changes that will impact in our children’s lifetime.
Final comments from Dessie: There are 42 decision makers sitting in a room, making social security decisions daily. It’s not merely stamping a page. They need to understand they are complicit in condemning people to poverty.