Calm down, dears? Why it's a bad time to be a British woman | Polly Toynbee

International Women's Day marks the first era in living memory that the equality drive has gone into reverse

Turn back the clocks and rewind history for International Women's Day today. This marks the first era in living memory that British women's freedoms have gone into reverse, as women pay the heaviest price for government policies.

Intentionally or not, a male breadwinner with a dependent woman carer at home is the model on which the cuts are crafted, removing the supports to independence and sending women home. "The most family-friendly government ever" – promised at election time – is in retreat.

"Calm down dear," Cameron said to one protesting woman MP, but Ipsos Mori finds women's support for him waning, less contented with him, more dissatisfied with how his government is running the country.

"We are putting women at the heart of the economic future," reads the government briefing for Women's Day, but that might surprise the mothers who have given up work, unable to pay for childcare that rose another 6% this year.

The £910 cut in childcare credits and shrinking support for the elderly means women leaving work, even though losing that foothold jeopardises their future security.

Women do twice as much unpaid caring as men, so when the safety nets go, so does their independence. Of the 710,000 public employees cut, 65% are women. Since women progress higher up the ladder in the public sector, expect their overall professional status to fall.

Cameron calls for more women in the boardroom – only 14% now – but he opposes EU plans for quotas. If his government seems blind to women, it doesn't help that he has appointed only 21 women out of 119 ministers. Women earn less, own less, have less secure jobs, with three times more men than women earning in the top 10%.

The pay gap has narrowed annually for a generation, though women still earn 15.5% less than men. But for the first time in decades that gap is set to widen as losing public sector jobs where pay is far more equal tips the balance. Lib Dem raising of the tax threshold does least for women, as many earn below tax levels, but lose multiples more in benefit and credits.

Women were predestined to be the great losers once the government decided to shrink the deficit with 80% spending cuts and only 20% tax cuts: women pay less tax and use more services. Of the £18bn cut from benefits, £11bn comes from women's pockets, according to the IFS and the Fawcett Society. Single mothers take the worst hit, their incomes falling 8.5%.

When the new universal credit comes in, 500,000 single parents will be losers, but women in couples fare badly too: universal credit will send many wives home, removing any incentive for a partner to earn extra. Bolstering that retro male breadwinner ideal, the money will mainly go to men, ignoring all previous evidence that men spend it less on children.

Winning rights in divorce has taken women decades, but wives will be powerless when they lose legal aid. For custody of their children and sharing assets, they must defend themselves in court while husbands may afford lawyers. This week's NAO report shows that more than half of parents (mainly mothers) who have care of children in separated families receive no child maintenance. The fathers' rebellion against paying finally wins the day as the government tells families to "sort it out for themselves". For mothers who ask CMEC, the child support agency, to help secure maintenance for them, about 80% receive child support; yet this will now depend on women paying a 12% commission from their average £30 a week payments.

Half the women suffering domestic violence will lose legal aid as qualifying rules tighten. Women's refuges, severely cut, report turning away 230 women a day with nowhere to send them. Expect teenage pregnancies to rise after falling 24% since 1998: in recent years the teenage pregnancy strategy finally discovered what worked. But that's wound up, with smaller funds dispersed unringfenced to councils.

Where is the good news? The government launches a violence against women action plan on Thursday. More flexible parental leave is promised for 2015. A body-image teaching pack is available to primary schools. "The government is making a real difference to women's lives," says the briefing – and indeed it is. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns that only 12% of planned cuts have happened, so for women the worst is yet to come.

It is good news, though, that women are responding, joining Fawcett, UK Feminista, Gingerbread and Object. Young women are indignant at backsliding public imagery, the airbrushing, pornification, lap-dancing and unchecked laddishness driving girls to anorexia and self-loathing. Last year's Slutwalk protest spread around the world, protesting against rape and the blaming of women, after a Canadian police chief said: "Women should avoid dressing like sluts."

Culture is not beyond the reach of governments, but they need to set the tone starting with their own deep attitudes towards equality.

• This article was amended on 8 March 2012. The original said that CMEC was failing to get child maintenance payments for more than half of mothers. The figure of 50% plus applies to a much wider population group, not just those who have asked the CMEC for help securing maintenance. The relevant paragraph in the text has been corrected and extended.


Polly Toynbee

The GuardianTramp

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