Today (10 December 2019) marks the final day of 16 Days of Action/Activism in the area of gender-based violence. The 16 days began on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Today is also the International Day of Human Rights.
I discuss below 16 ways Brexit could impact on women's rights, should we leave under the terms of the most recently negotiated Conservative Withdrawal Agreement, or with no deal at all.
1. Loss of the protection floor for equality rights.
EU Equality law sets the minimum level of protection of equality rights.
Departure from the EU removes this floor, leading to potential erosion of rights.
During the negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement & Act, the EHRC (Equalities and Human Rights Commission) recommended an amendment to the Act which would, post-Brexit, have required a minister of the Government to make a statement to confirm that any legislation the Government was seeking to pass does not reduce protections under equality legislation.
The Government rejected this amendment because the word ‘protection’ lacks any basis in statute.
The government have signalled no guarantee of protection of equality rights, post-Brexit.
2. Loss of the EU Charter for Fundamental Rights.
The UK government previously promised that Brexit wouldn’t lead to a reduction in fundamental rights. However, its decision to exclude the Charter post-Brexit means:
A. GAPS IN BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS
EHRC research has found that several rights protected by the Charter “do not have equivalent protections in UK law and may be lost”. Including rights to: dignity, fair and just working conditions, non-discrimination and effective remedy.
B. LESS POWER TO PROTECT RIGHTS
The Charter provides more powerful mechanisms for protecting rights than does the UK, particularly in relation to employment rights.
C. LESS PROTECTION OF FUNDAMETNAL RIGHTS
The Charter allows for any law to be struck down that does not protect the rights set out by the Charter.
D. LEGAL UNCERTAINTY AND CONFUSION
The Courts will have to determine which rights still apply post-Brexit, depending on the protection in UK law. This will be timely and costly.
3. Erosion of the Equality Act 2010.
The 2010 Act is a strong protection of equality rights for certain protected characteristics – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
Much of the content of the Act is derived from EU law.
Departure from the EU exposes the legislation.
The Women’s Committee and other organisations have demanded the Government protect the Act before Brexit.
The Government refused, failing to set out any reasons for its refusal.
4. Erosion of Human Rights.
The UK Human Rights Act 1998 transposes into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Whilst the ECHR is not EU legislation and so will not be lost with Brexit, the Conservatives have previously stated their intention to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ – a Conservative Party written set of human rights. Given the Conservative government’s track record, this is a cause for concern.
5. Gender-blind policies resulting in unknown impact on women and other groups.
The current Government has failed to conduct any equality impact assessments for any area of Brexit, with regard to any protected group. This means that the full effects of Brexit on women and other groups are unknown.
6. Continued resistance to progressive new legislation aiming to improve the lives of women.
The current UK government has a track record of resisting EU legislation aimed at improving the lives of women and other groups. Without EU oversight, the government has no external pressure to enact progressive legislation, and no external accountability.
7. Loss of European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction and EU case law
Put simply, the ECJ is in place to ensure member states abide by EU law; an additional safeguard on top of domestic courts.
The ECJ has made multiple key rulings in favour of gender equality, e.g. the Defrenne II judgment on equal pay. The case law of the ECJ is relied upon in UK courts to ensure the law is upheld, which is helpful given that UK courts are traditionally less progressive in several areas relating to equality.
Brexit removes the UK from the court’s jurisdiction, and its previous rulings can be ignored by UK courts, peeling back another layer of protection for UK citizens.
8. Loss of progressive new EU laws in employment, maternity/paternity and business.
Several EU directives have recently been passed, which, if implemented in the UK would afford more rights to pregnant workers, agency workers, part-time workers. With the majority of agency and part-time workers, and all the pregnant workers in the UK being women, the loss of these directives would impact on women in the main.
In addition, the EU just passed a directive aiming for increased work-life balance (through greater maternity and paternity benefits) and increased numbers of women on boards.
The UK resisted all of the above new legislation as it made its way through the European Parliament. It is thus unlikely that the current government will opt to provide UK citizens the same rights post-Brexit as will be afforded to all other EU citizens.
Not only will this mean less rights for UK citizens, but less attraction to the UK for EU workers. This will impact on our public services, businesses and the economy.
9. Continued austerity.
Since 2010, women have shouldered 86% of the cost of austerity measures. Public spending cuts hit women as they represent:
The primary users of public services
The majority (65%) of the public sector workforce
The majority of unpaid carers, picking up the slack of the chronically underfunded care sector.
Under Brexit, austerity is expected to continue, and it is extremely likely that women will be disproportionately impacted further.
10. A wider gender pay gap
Currently, the UK has the 4th largest gender pay gap in the EU.
The loss of the power of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (which made equal pay a fundamental right) in particular, combined with the current UK government’s track record of resisting various proposals aimed at reducing the gap, lead to the likelihood of a worsening economic position for women.
11. Weakened influence of women’s networks
In 2010 the Conservative Government disbanded the Women’s National Commission (WNC) in the UK. The WNC acted as a platform for hundreds of women’s organisations to lobby and advise the government.
Leaving the EU could mean that the UK’s membership of multiple cross-EU women’s networks could also be at risk. This weakens the voice of women lobbying for change and the strength in collaborative work.
12. Loss of billions of pounds in EU funding of women’s organisations and support services.
The EU provides hundreds of UK based organisations with funding for crucial, often life-saving working.
Brexit will remove those funding streams, forcing services and organisations to rely on the limited amounts provided by our current government and charitable trusts.
The Government has pledged to open the ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ to ensure no losses are felt in this area through Brexit. However, to date, no details have been released on the amount of money available, the allocation of funds, the length of funding available or the priorities. Crucial services such as Rape Crisis centres already fight year to year for annual funding and now faced increased uncertainty, putting lives at risk.
13. Continued delay of ratification of the Istanbul Convention
The Istanbul Convention, in short, sets out the minimum expectations of a ratifying country when it comes to VAWG: how its agencies should behave, and what its laws and procedures should do. Falling short of the standards set out by the Convention means the ratifying country can be held accountable under human rights law. The UK has delayed ratifying (bringing into law) the Convention, since 2012.
The EU provides external pressure on EU member states to ratify the Convention. Brexit removes this pressure and accountability.
14. Cross-border protections, such as the European Protection Order, lost.
The Government has signalled no intention to replace the European Protection Order (EPO), which UK citizens will lose access to as soon as we ‘Brexit’.
EPOs gives EU citizens protection from acts that may endanger their lives and safety when they move around the EU. They are especially vital for victims of domestic abuse, stalking and harassment.
Any protection orders made in the UK can be made applicable across the EU and perpetrators can be criminalised for any breach abroad.
15. Continued, systematic disadvantage for migrant women.
The UK’s ‘right to reside’ requirements systematically disadvantages women.
Women make up the majority of EU nationals living in the UK. Current EU nationals are required to apply for ‘settled status’ in the UK. This is achieved by meeting the ‘right to reside’ requirements, which are based on employment and residency criteria established with the ‘productive man’ in mind.
This systematically disadvantages women who are much more likely than men to have patchy employment records due to unpaid labour and caring duties (which are not considered as formal employment) and property deeds and utility bills in a partner’s name. Without the proper evidence, it is likely that many EU migrant women will be asked to leave the UK.
16. Increased human trafficking, with predominantly women victims
Harsh immigration policies usually go hand in hand with an increase in human trafficking.
Around 80% of victims of trafficking are women and girls.
69% of trafficking cases are cases of sex trafficking.
95% of sex trafficking victims are women and girls.
If migrant women are unable to continue to reside in the UK, their vulnerability to traffickers increases.
In all of this, many black and minoritised women are at increased risk. BAME women are, on average, “more likely than white women to occupy a socio-economic position that makes them more vulnerable to cuts in benefits and public services and less likely to benefit from tax changes” (Women’s Budget Group, 2018). BAME people, particularly women, are more likely to work in the public sector, which will be affected by further austerity.
BAME women also are more likely to have no right to remain and no recourse to public funds, making them more vulnerable to abuse from intimate partners and others.
The current situation is bleak and we must demand better, informed policies.