Opinion

As ever, it is women who are left to carry the load

The vast majority of applicants to Iceland's micro-loan scheme are women. It's a familiar story

Iceland loans

Iceland's micro-loans have been high in demand after the supermarket made them available to its five million customers across the UK. Image: Iceland

The Iceland Food Club is one of the great successes of our time. It shouldn’t be needed. Like food banks and warm banks and any number of other good initiatives to help prevent many in society from falling off the edge, it’s a gross shame it exists at all. 

But you can’t argue against the position you’re in. During this period of cruel and chaotic dissonance, when we are frequently told by our government that what we can see and experience is not the reality of what we see and experience, the best we can do is fix the worst of things and plan to make sure they don’t return. 

We’ve covered the Food Club a lot. It is a scheme offering interest-free micro loans to help people who are struggling. Rather than being driven to merciless loan sharks and a spiral of greater debt and fear, this initiative is available at a key moment and in a responsible way it helps, and also allows people to help themselves.

When it was close to launch one of the people behind it told me it came about because of the community-based way the Iceland stores are staffed. Many staff live in the communities in which they work. They started to notice that as the cost of living was gripping, some customers were missing out on a weekly shop here and there. They just couldn’t afford it. And so the micro-loan scheme was born to help them through.

This week came details of those who use it. One of the most striking things to emerge was that 83 per cent of those taking out loans were women. You can add your own thoughts about what this says about how women still carry the domestic load. Or you can see that in tough times we men are often found wanting, and it is women who see what is needed and step up. The majority of the women are aged between 25-45 and the loans are spiking during school holidays. 

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That is not an unfamiliar wider story. Across Britain, as we see the retreat of the state, it is in community organisations that emergency help is broadly found, and beyond emergency, in everyday services. The great modern investigative journalist John Harris has done more than most in the last decade to record and articulate the reality of Britain’s social change. There is a constant in his reports, and that is the role women play in leading all this. They are running the schemes and carrying the load when the job is needing done.

More often than not they are older women who society often decides to listen to less, just because they get a little older. Which is odd, because as we men get older society frequently endows us with a level of gravitas and insight of which we are not quite deserving. Probably for the best that WhatsApp messages between me and my older male relatives remain private. The level of base humour we share does not dissipate as hair greys. Still, nobody is suggesting our input into the great well of knowledge should ease off. 

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There is a brilliant documentary on iPlayer at the moment called Karen Dunbar’s School of Rap. It is, nominally, about the Scottish comedian Dunbar teaching a group of older Glaswegian women how to rap. That sounds a bit patronising and hokey, so see beyond the explanation. Because it’s really a social history that covers working-class life as it changed and hardened and eased, and it’s also about loss, grief and recovery. It is very quietly affecting. It is also about, again, how women have held so much of the fabric together when the threads start to loosen.  

It’s not hard to find this evidence, if we care to look, lads. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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Head here to apply for the Iceland Food Club Card

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