Rachel Reeves: The inspirational women whose battle is far from won

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TODAY is the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day and an opportunity to remember the contributions of women to society and our community. Women like Alice Bacon, who represented Leeds between 1945 and 1970 and fought for clean air, slum clearance, comprehensive education and better protection for coal miners.

But it is also a chance to support and celebrate projects that work with women in our communities today.

I was proud to have the chance to speak to Leeds Women’s Aid this week about the Anneli Safehouse project, set up three years ago to offer support to women trafficked for the sex trade and fleeing persecution.

It is incredible to think that just a few years ago there was no provision for these women in Leeds desperately in need of help.

Stories of the women the Anneli Safehouse was set up to support are harrowing, but also a source of inspiration: from the greatest hardship can bloom hope and happiness.

Leeds Women’s Aid is a superb example of a service run for women, by women, making a huge difference to everyone who comes in to contact with its work.

So it gave me real pride to celebrate the work that groups like these are doing for women in our communities – and also speak up for the value of the work they do in these tough times when women are especially vulnerable to cuts to local and national services and cuts to welfare support.

Because today projects for women fleeing domestic violence and exploitation are under threat.

Evidence in a report commissioned by Yvette Cooper MP shows that women’s refuges are facing a 31 per cent cut in their budgets, meaning women fleeing domestic violence or persecution will find it harder to get help.

At the same time, cuts to local authority budgets mean street lights being switched off, having a detrimental impact on women’s safety in the evenings returning from work, college or school.

Women are also at risk financially – facing tough decisions about work because of the cost of childcare at a time when families are struggling with rising rents, train fares, petrol prices and gas and electricity bills.

But the Government isn’t helping. Numbers from the House of Commons library show that this government’s changes to taxes and benefits have taken twice as much from women as from men.

On April 6, changes will be brought in that will directly affect families who are reliant on tax credits to boost their income.

Couples with children earning less than around £17,700 will need to increase the number of hours they work from a minimum of 16 to 24 hours per week or they will lose all their working tax credit of £3,870 per year.

This change alone will affect over 20,000 households in Yorkshire.

Some families with children could end up being £728 per year better off on benefits than they would be in work if they cannot increase their hours at work.

At a time when 10 people are chasing every job in Yorkshire and employers are cutting working hours, not increasing them, this policy doesn’t make sense.

Women’s safety, welfare and economic equality is a blind spot for this Government – not surprising when there are only four women in the cabinet, and just 56 women on the Government benches in Parliament – just 18 per cent of the total.

So 42 years after Alice Bacon stood down as an MP, we still have a long way to go to ensure the voices of women in Leeds and elsewhere are heard in Parliament’s debates and Whitehall’s corridors of power.

It is by upholding the struggles of those that have gone before: from the suffragettes fighting for the vote to the quiet industry of women like Alice Bacon; and it is by supporting the superb work done by local organisations like the Anneli Safehouse Project, that we can take forward the struggle for fairness, equality and a stronger voice for women.

If we do that, then I know we can do our part in building a stronger, fairer and more compassionate society in which our daughters and grand-daughters can celebrate our achievements.

On the 101st International Women’s Day we have much to celebrate, but a lot more still to achieve.

* Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West, and Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.