We are constantly told by the mainstream media that girls are outperforming boys at school and that young women now have more opportunities and choice than women of previous generations.

International Women’s day, England and Wales.

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Real rights for women to choose

New Labour tell us that we need ‘reforms’ in our services in order to endorse ‘choice’ for women. But what choice do young women really have in today’s society?

‘Right’ to Education

Fees, means-testing for a grant and student debt estimated at £26,000 have made it increasingly difficult for working-class young people to go to university. Applications have dropped as a result and two third of students now have to work during their degrees. These attacks disproportionately affect women who are paid less than their male counterparts. They often enter part-time work because of family responsibilities and therefore take longer to pay back top-up fees and student debt.

It could take a woman with two children twenty years to pay off her student debt, five more years than male colleagues with the same qualifications and job. This is only providing she manages to secure a position with an annual wage of £36,000!

Female students are also less likely to enter subjects like finance, computer science or engineering - subjects linked to some of the highest paid jobs in Britain today. Female dominated courses are often seen as non-profitable for big business and do not attract private funding, which is the new funding system under New Labour.

Women with children also find it next to impossible to enter higher education. Universities do not always provide childcare that covers all the hours needed by parents. This hardship is worse during school holidays, where student parents are expected to study and sometimes work as a result of cuts in benefits and grants. Universities find millions of pounds however to fund schemes increasing its prestige on the market and attracting private investment.

We say no to top up fees and student loans. Free education and a living grant for all students. Free, quality childcare for students which covers all the hours parents need, including holidays.

Sexism

Working class women, including students, can find themselves victims of the sex industry which is exploiting this impoverished and oppressed layer in society and objectifying their bodies. ‘Escort jobs’ have been advertised in local students’ unions putting female students at even higher risk of sexual harassment and rape. These problems are made even worse by students unions who use sexist advertising and promote events such as beauty contests and ‘Pimps & Prostitutes’ nights to sell more alcohol.

This is despite the fact that the National Union of Students boasts about its ‘pro-choice’ policy for women and that ‘the place of a woman is in education and a trade union’. Three quarters of female students do not feel safe walking on their campus after dark. Yet with lack of adequate reasonable priced transport, many students are forced to walk in areas where they feel unsafe.

The images presented of women are promoting sexist attitudes, reinforcing the objectification of women, portraying us and our bodies as commodities for the ‘free’ market and contributing to the overall oppression of women, including violence against women. 

The ‘right’ to choose what to wear

Stereotypes as to how women should look and dress are to the direct benefit of big business. All mainstream sources of information, especially the media, promote the latest appearance and diet trend which often targets women and as a result boosts the enormous profits of the diet and beauty industries.

This is contributing to health problems, both physical and psychological, with 85% of women worrying about their bodies every day, only 1% of young women being completely satisfied with their bodies and many experiencing eating disorders.

On the one hand, we are told that women now have ‘choice’ and are sexually ‘liberated’, but we are also told what to wear, how to look, and to accept sexism, discrimination and oppression. Women should have the right to wear whatever they choose, whether this is wearing the latest fashionable dress or jeans and a hoodie. Women should also have the right to wear the hijab or not, as they and no one else decides (see article 3 March 2004).

For full article in The Socialist by Zena Awad see web-site of the Socialist Party, England and Wales (opens in new window)

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