National attack women and the poor (again)
This week has seen the extraordinary announcement that National will fund frontline Work and Income New Zealand staff to encourage women beneficiaries to get onto long-term contraception. While it is a good idea for everyone to have access to contraception, the announcement that this is targeted solely at beneficiaries is extremely problematic, and yet again the approach to policy when considered in terms of the overall distribution of funding is ill-considered and effectively anti-women.
First, let's turn to the issue of teen pregnancies. Fenwick and Purdie (2000) conservatively estimated that roughly one third of New Zealand teens have had sex by the age of 16. The Welfare Working Group's report disregards the broader social movement towards this (which probably has a lot to do with the sexualisation of tweens) to position it as a problem of the abnormally mature, the poor or the sexually abused. In reality, it is roughly one in three of your children that are having sex before the legal age. As Sue Jackson from the University of Victoria's Psychology School argued in a Ministry of Social Development publication from March 2004, it is clear that it is the lack of cultural recognition in sex education at schools that is contributing to our high rate of teen pregnancies. The decision to follow through with the pregnancy is often determined by the culture of the teen - while higher socio-economic white girls tend to abort, Maori and Polynesians are less likely to. Jackson specifically points to the dependence on overseas studies in constructing policy and the lack of research in this area as a factor that contributes to our growing teen pregnancy rates. To put it bluntly, the money is being invested in the wrong place. It is far better invested in education, and this education needs to begin to take some of the research into account. Quite clearly while white girls are not having babies at the same rate, there are still medical and psychological issues around having abortions so the issue needs to be dealt with more sensitively.
Second, the administration of this through WINZ is simply inappropriate. With a Community Services Card, one can already bypass hefty doctor's fees to pay $5 for an appointment (free for the under 23s) and $3 for the pill for 3 months. Family Planning is far better trained and positioned to give advice on this topic, and would be a better recipient of the funding. There is no way that women should be pressured at WINZ, at a time when they are most likely under a lot of pressure. As Gordon Campbell points out, many of the women who are on the Domestic Purposes Benefit are already under a lot of stress through failed relationships. While Bennett maintains that this is voluntary, the message from the Government is clear: just like McDonalds workers are instructed to ask if you would like fries with that, WINZ case workers will be intruding on private medical and sexual territory. That the male beneficiaries are not being asked the same questions smacks of sexism; that the support is only aimed at beneficiaries rather than all women earning under $30,000 smacks of eugenics. This is why the Women's Health Trust have said that this is a clear violation of women's human rights, and Family Planning have expressed their concern at the policy only being aimed at beneficiaries.
Third, the administration of this through WINZ fails to deal with a burgeoning problem in New Zealand that accompanies teen sexual activity - that of the rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teens. IUDs and the injection do not protect teens from these diseases, meaning that an inproperly administrated nightmare like the one this looks to be may have the adverse effect of contributing to our rates of STDs (newsflash: that means it affects your kids, not just the poor ones). Welfare Working Group member Sharon Wilson-Davis seemed to be lacking a basic understanding of the issues around contraception during her appearance on Close Up the other night, meaning that one was left with the bizarre message that it is fine for one to sleep around as long as they were not breeding, but suffering from STDs or AIDs was fine. Before this move is introduced, it is imperative that experts in this area are consulted. In May 2010, Tony Ryall scrapped $8 million of funding towards testing for our burgeoning STD transmission rate problem, signalling that the National Government are not thinking the larger issues through. Almost one in five of women in the Bay of Plenty aged between 15 and 24 have been treated for chlamydia, so this gung ho approach to policy should be received with caution, as media attention on the $1 million aimed at stopping beneficiaries breeding is eclipsing the very real cuts that National have made to securing the sexual and familial health of our youth. And before Colin Craig opens his idiotic mouth again to place the blame on 'loose women', studies from the US show that conservatives with their emphasis on virginity are much less likely to use condoms, meaning his voters are likely equally contributing to the problem.
The problem here is that the policies that National are announcing are largely based on dog-whistle politics designed to sway voters, rather than any rational consideration of the social status quo. And this is why their social engineering is doomed to fail. That this buttresses other anti-women policies that they have introduced, including the increased pressure on ACC rape survivors that agencies argue is leading to suicides, and the change in domestic violence reporting should be a worry to female voters.