Sophie Fosker and Mora McLagan talk about how a stunning new Oxfam exhibition shows how personally the politics crafted at Westminster can bite back home.
The security systems at Westminster were put through their paces last week as scanning machines whirred and security guards rifled tentatively through Oxfam's latest creative campaign piece; A bumper delivery of credit crunch handbags.
The handbags were an exhibition created to bring to life the experiences and words of ordinary women - and to get them heard where it most matters. It accompanied the parliamentary launch on Tuesday of Oxfam's recent report The Perfect Storm, at an event hosted by MP Kate Green - shadow Minister of State for Equalities.
Oxfam partners The Pankhurst Centre and Women Asylum Seekers Together worked with Manchester-based artists Charlotte Newson and Claire Mooney on the project over several months. Local women created their own accounts of how government policy, cuts and the recession have affected them - through handmade and fabulously designed handbags. Newson and Mooney recorded detailed audio interviews with each woman to
accompany the exhibition, and over several weeks of workshops helped them to piece together their narrative into an individual artwork; a personal handbag of experience.
Each piece is a map of a woman's life, reflecting the current reality of her income and the often harrowing repercussions this has on her life and on those of her loved ones. Women stitched, glued and painted stunning handbags to house their stories and their views. They then placed inside handmade objects, or symbolic artifacts that showcase how their lives have changed over the past two years. A peep inside one bag reveals a row of beautifully made peg dolls, each holding a tiny placard. "At home I keep my coat and gloves on to keep warm" reads one, while another tiny
protestor shouts; "My teenager's Education Maintenance Allowance has been stopped. Now it's only for those on free school meals. So because I work, we lose out."
Women from The Pankhurst Centre display the contents of one handbag art piece outside the Houses of Parliament; "My teenager's Education Maintenance Allowance has been stopped. Now it's only for those on free school meals. So because I work, we lose out."
A glance in another bag reveals a disturbing array of empty pill packets, painkillers and prescription anti-depressants. Accounts of escalating depression and stress as a result of rising financial hardship were a common theme in the women's work, moving Kate Green MP to comment on this in her speech at the event.
The bags illustrate better than any academic study can, the true cost of government austerity measures on the wellbeing of women as family budgeters, mothers, carers and career-women. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to break a taboo; rifle through a woman handbag, and discover how the cuts and the recession have impacted her hopes, dreams and the day-to-day realities of her budgeting. While rummaging around and exploring the contents, visitors can listen to the women's voices telling their stories on headphones.
Artist Charlotte Newson with Oxfam Director of UK Poverty Chris Johnes, Oxfam Gender Co-Ordinator Sophie Fosker, and Women from The Pankhurst Centre holding their handbags.
Five women who took part in the project got to see their work in action at Parliament on Tuesday, and watched as MP's, Lords and Ladies peeped inside their bags. For some it was the first time they had ever been on a train, let alone gained access to the Houses of Parliament, so taking women to the heart of government to get their voices heard was a real privilege. Julie from Fallowfield told us afterwards; "I really nervous before hand, but then all the Oxfam staff were so lovely and welcoming. I was amazed that people could really relate to
our handbags and understand our stories. Even the men in suit and ties, it must have been a bit weird for them to go into a woman's handbag, but they did!"
The women's very moving stories expressed through the colourful handbags, was such a powerful way of getting people to understand the reality of women's lived experiences of poverty. They made the personal political, but maybe more importantly, showed us all how personally the politics which is crafted here at Westminster, can bite back home. As Sharon, who'd taken her handbag down from Manchester to display told us; "Going to Parliament was a once in a life time opportunity. It was important that we got to speak directly to politicians and
get our points across".
And the points are critical Local cuts in Manchester, as well as changes to the benefits system and rising unemployment have hit Oxfam's partner organisations particularly hard. As the Pankhurst Centre has told us; "We used to have women drop in off the street in urgent need of support every now and then. But the last six months it is happening at least once a week. Services that are a life line for women such as advice centres and domestic abuse support have been cut, and we left to pick up the pieces with fewer resources ourselves".
It's a story that is beginning to sound depressingly familiar. Yet the vibrant community that The Pankhurst Centre has created is working flat-out to keep itself upbeat. "We've got a choir now - The Pankettes", Julie tells us. "I wasn't sure at first that I wanted to sing, wasn't sure that I could sing. But now I love it, two hours of singing and you forget all your worries."
And some of the women have considerable worries. Rising food and fuel costs, cuts to benefits, lack of decent part time work that women can fit around caring responsibilities, unaffordable childcare... All this means that many women cannot return to work even if they would like to. These are just some of the issues faced by one fifth of the population who live in official poverty, raised by The
Perfect Storm. Oxfam's report argues that we need to see income being distributed more fairly if we are to make any impact on reducing levels of poverty; if we carry on down this path the UK will return to levels of inequality not seen since Victorian times.
Kate Green MP looks through the bags on display.
Victorian times weren't a great era for women's equality. Women weren't allowed to own property, let alone vote or divorce. We've moved a long way since then but the impact of the Perfect Storm threatens to turn back time on decades of progress. Cuts to family support and working tax credit, combined with the fact that childcare costs in the UK are among the most expensive in the UK, mean that many mothers cannot afford to work. Under the proposed changes to welfare, the new universal credit favours single single-earner couples,
threatening to push mothers back into the home in families where the father is the main breadwinner.
Despite and perhaps because of these challenges, women from the Pankhurst Centre are resilient and creative and above all, they want to get their voices heard. Whether the message comes through an Oxfam policy report or through women's handbags, it is loud and clear. Levels of inequality today and the threat to women's equality is unacceptable and we will fight together to make sure that we do not slip back to Victorian times.