One of the founding Articles of the EU makes its commitment to gender equality explicit:
“In all its activities the European Union shall aim to eliminate
inequalities and to promote equality between men and women”
This principle commits EU countries and institutions to trying to achieve gender equality and a more equal balance between men and women in all the areas in which member-states have decided to build a close union.
However, sadly in Britain the fight for equality has a long way to go. Women’s voices in the main topic of the day – Brexit – are still woefully under-represented, and although women stand to lose a whole array of rights and protections, there is still little discussion of Brexit’s gendered impact. Women and equality campaigners have been under-represented both during the referendum campaign and Brexit negotiations, with men taking 75% of TV coverage and 85% of press space.
The furore surrounding David Davis’s notorious “impact assessments” drowned out the startling fact that no gender impact assessment of Brexit has been carried out . Women stand to lose so much *if* Brexit happens. Withdrawing from the EU means future equality and human rights protections will no longer be binding in UK law, and existing protections might be removed (or not matched) by replacement legislation.
For 45 years, women have been protected by EU law. All could be up for grabs in post-Brexit Britain. The UK hasn’t even ratified the Istanbul Convention which commits countries to eradicating violence against women and girls. This failure to invest in ending violence against half the population illuminates the true nature of what is at stake in the Brexit debate.
Brexit also threatens critical money the EU invests in poorer and less developed regions of the UK through the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIFs) and the European Social Fund. These programs literally change people’s lives, allocating money to support women and minority groups, supporting those fleeing domestic violence, helping them retrain and regain their independence. These funds are worth £500 million a year in England alone, and support not only vulnerable women but also LGBT+ people (Equality and Diversity Forum 2018). The Government claims they will honour the funding until 2020, as long as these commitments align with “domestic priorities’’ whatever that means.
UK membership of the EU has led to real and substantial gains in working women’s rights. Leaving the EU threatens these hard-won protections. Women are still the main carers in many families, and face pressures juggling work with children or other caring commitments. Women make up the majority of the nearly one million people employed on zero-hours contracts.
In 1984 the UK Government was forced to include equal pay for work of equal value in the Equal Pay Act 1970 after it was taken to court by the European Commission. EU law also helped women working part-time gain equal pay and benefits compared to full-timers (on a pro-rata basis). It ruled that to give them less would be indirect sex discrimination, as mainly women work part-time. This lead to 400,000 women gaining an occupational pension for the first time.
And it is only thanks to a series of cases which ended up before the European courts that women now have legal protection from being dismissed for becoming pregnant, or for having to take time off during pregnancy.
Brexit means women will lose out on future gains. UK courts would no longer be bound to interpret UK law in line with EU law. Women workers in the UK would be denied the chance of European justice by referring to the ECJ as a last court of appeal. And any future progressive judgments from the ECJ on issues that affect women in the workplace could be ignored.
The European Commission is currently proposing a package of rights on work-life balance which will include parents and carers. This would benefit the 3,000,000 working carers in the UK, 3 out of 5 of whom are women. Is this what women voted for two years ago?
The plan to take the UK out of the EU after 45 years would fundamentally weaken all citizens’ access to protective laws. We could return to an era of widespread discrimination, with the whole population exposed to poor food safety, faulty appliances that we can’t do anything about, airline companies re-introducing overbooking, the return of call charges for roaming, water being tested to a lower standard, beach cleanliness ignored, medicines diverging from country to country, our police unable to ensure our safety without collaboration from other European countries and new mothers forced to return to work earlier.
There you have it; we need to resist this assault on our very identities as people who support gender and social equality, collaborate with international neighbours to improve our quality of life and live in peace. Let’s make all women - whether they voted leave or remain – become more aware of how much is at stake – and that we can achieve a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal to reconsider the impact on our rights.
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