Beyond Article 50: Brexit and Women's Rights
The wheels have been set in motion and over the next two years, the United Kingdom is set to change policies and law as it divorces the European Union.
Ahead of the referendum, there were warnings regarding women’s rights on both sides of the camp. Remainers argued that exiting the European Union would mean losing decades' worth of rights for women workers. In the other corner, Brexiteer Nigel Farage claimed that British women could face ‘Cologne style sex attacks,’ resulting from what he argued would be an influx of young men moving to Britain from European countries where women are treated as second-class citizens. Consequently, Farage claimed that if the United Kingdom remained in the Union, the consequence would be to ‘reverse a hundred years of female liberation.’ Farage's comments acted to fearmonger rather than voice credible concerns. The gendered impact of the referendum is evident; EU laws are central to achieving gender equality. The reality is that following Britain’s departure from the EU, many laws regarding the rights of women appear to be at risk. With the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Justice’s influence over British courts, there are fears that women could be worse off.
In the post-Brexit era, there will be two threats to women’s rights: deregulation and economic instability. The EU has been influential in proposing legislation to ensure gender equality. In May 2016, the TUC released a report that outlined 20 ways in which EU law helped improve the rights of working women in the UK. Examples include equal pay, maternity and paternal rights, and rights for part-time workers. As the EU has been instrumental in helping the UK achieve substantial gains in working women’s rights, Brexit serves as an opportunity for some of these gains to be reversed.
An economic slump could lead to further austerity measures, which, historically, have been seen to disproportionately affect women. Over the last few years, research conducted by independent think-tank, the Women’s Budget Group, has shown that, by 2020, tax and benefit changes will have hit women’s incomes twice as hard as men’s. Women will be £1,003 a year worse off by 2020 on average; for men, this figure is £555. Women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will be the worst affected, with those who currently have below-average incomes finding themselves £1,678 worse off per year. Women’s services have already been affected by current austerity measures, with major cuts occurring across the sector. These include cuts to vital services, such as refuges which provide safe housing and offer help to survivors of domestic violence. Brexit means leaving the EU, but if Brexit also means further austerity cuts, this will have a detrimental impact on the lives of women across the UK. The EU has given a great amount of money to women’s services in Britain over the years. Between 2011 and 2014, the Home Office was awarded €300,000 as part of the EU progress fund to fight FGM. As part of this work, the Home Office made £100,000 available as part of a community engagement initiative to raise awareness of FGM within affected communities. As we see the inevitable discontinuation of EU projects and funding to women’s services, it does cause some doubt as to whether this funding will be replaced, especially if the U.K. faces economic turmoil.
Nonetheless, it isn’t all doom and gloom in the forecasts, and there are many actions that individuals can take to protect women’s rights and improve the lives of many. Donate to the Fawcett Society, which has launched the Sex Discrimination Law Review in order to address the concern that women’s rights will be relegated to the bottom of the political agenda following Brexit. The EU has proposed legislation to tackle issues in the UK, such as the gender pay gap, ending violence against women and girls, and addressing misogyny in the workplace. The Review is calling for support in order to ensure these issues are not forgotten nor disregarded. Additionally, joining the Women’s Equality Party - launched in March 2015 - is great opportunity for political engagement. In the face of Brexit, the Women’s Equality Party are actively seeking to protect women’s rights and improve gender equality, for the benefit of all. Furthermore, volunteering for and donating to women’s charities is a great way to ensure that women continue to be supported, in a time when the futures of many women’s services are uncertain. Organisations such as Refuge, Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid are great places to start. The fight is far from over and as the UK is embarking upon an uncertain path following its withdrawal from the EU, it is important to ensure that women continue to be supported and their rights are protected.
Lydia Birtwistle-Sawyer is a recent graduate of SOAS, University of London and attends lectures as a hobby.