The high amount of single mothers living in poverty is one of the main problems Brussels is currently facing. It is time for policy makers, civil society and inhabitants of Brussels to take action and no longer accept the miserable situation in which these women are living. Single mothers
According to figures in a poverty report for 2014 by Brussels-Capital Health and Social Observatory, one out of three citizens lives in poverty and 40% of Brussels’ population run the risk to live in poverty and exclusion.
Generally, poverty figures do not take into consideration gender, even though it is very important since women and children are the most vulnerable groups in the poverty figures. In particular, single mothers are living in exclusion. A staggering 87% of single households are women.
According to the report, it is very difficult for single mothers to get out of poverty and insecurity since the structural inequality is anchored in many areas and levels. Furthermore, if these women also have a migration background, their problems are reinforced by a wall of racism and discrimination.
The story of M.
I met M. for the first time four years ago in a café close to Flagey Square in Brussels. She was working there as a waitress. ‘One of my three jobs’, she told me later. None of the jobs were permanent. ‘They call me when they need me and if I want to keep the job, I better be there’.
M. has two children and this makes it very hard for her to be on stand-by at all times. But she does not have a choice as even with the three mini-jobs she has difficulties supporting herself and her children. She was looking for years for a permanent job, but without success. M. is convinced that her ‘foreign’ name and the fact that she lives in Molenbeek, an area with a large proportion of immigrants, play to her disadvantage. Research and figures tell us she is right. M. would prefer to live in a commune such as Ixelles, but she stays in Molenbeek since she cannot afford the rent and food prices in Brussels’ other communes.
M. lives together with her mother and her two children. ‘It is thanks to my mother that I can work. I have no idea how I would manage without her.’ Her mother came to live with her after her husband died, after which she became lonely and started facing financial problems.
I talked to M. a few times after her work. She always had her phone very close to her hands in case one of her employers or her mother would call. She wanted to share her story because politicians, media and others do not listen to the citizens of Brussels and do not know or understand the hard reality that many face.
During one of these conversations I asked her (very carefully) why she was never talking about the father of her children. ‘The first years we were happy together. He had a job and I was working half-time. When he lost his job the misery began. He felt bad, a failure. He started to drink and gamble.’ Suddenly she pointed to a hidden scar under her chin. M. told me that during two years she even tolerated physical violence with the hope that he would change. ‘But the day he started to hit our children I went to his parents and told them everything and asked for a divorce’.
After a year of not seeing M., I crossed her in the street a few months ago. ‘I’m going to become a policewoman’, she said. I first thought she was joking. During one of our conversations I remembered she was complaining about the police in Brussels. ‘My mother is getting old and for the kids I need more money. I need a permanent job.’
I had respect for M. because despite her difficult situation and the hard times she had experienced in the past, she remained resilient. Like me, she realized very well what it meant to work as policewoman with a migration background and living in Molenbeek. My respect for her increased.
Single mothers, women like M., who are struggling in life, deserve respect instead of the stigma of clichés. They deserve respect for their resilience and dedication to their children.
Single mothers need structural support because that is the only way to get them out of poverty and exclusion. Benefits and income levels must be raised and should be at least above the poverty line. The Brussels region must urgently address social housing by investing in it and give priority to single mothers.
Employers and educators must take into account the reality of single mothers and consider how they can respond in a positive way. A shorter workweek is an excellent idea and would be a huge step forward.
There is more that we could do. There is a need for jobs for these women in the neighbourhoods where they live and they also need to be provided with adequate childcare to help them manage their time.
Many single mothers live in depression and loneliness because of their economic uncertainty. Civil society organizations and community groups can make a difference by taking women out of their isolation and by listening to them and putting together social and cultural activities. We must fight loneliness and alienation by coming together and sharing the public space.
Last but not least: tackling poverty and socio-economic insecurity for women is not only important for them, but also for the future of their children.