International Women's Day: What does Brexit mean for women's rights?
Millions around the world gathered together, on streets and on social media, to campaign for equality, diversity, and inclusion during last month's Women's March.
The unprecedented turnout was a wake up call for many — people want change.
Whether you’ve felt empowered or disheartened with the recent goings-on in global politics, there’s no doubt that equality has been a hot topic of conversation.
So with the eye-wateringly complex task of undoing the intertwined laws of the EU and the UK, will women be left short-changed?
Women’s rights were cemented into British law long before we joined the EU in 1973. Becoming part of the EU, however, led to significant improvements in the working rights of millions of women and, it should be said, men as well.
The EU and workers’ rights
Amongst other entitlements, the EU has extended the right to equal pay, improved the treatment of pregnant women and new mothers at work, improved pay and conditions for part-time
workers and protected people from sex discrimination.
Campaigners are worried that leaving the EU will undo the aforementioned rights and, although unlikely to disappear completely, critics say these rights are something that could be neglected over time.
For instance “part-time workers and breastfeeding mothers” could be at the receiving end of a ‘hard’ Brexit argues Sophie Walker, Leader of the Women’s Equality Party. “Women have had to rely on the EU regulatory framework and the European Court of Justice to safeguard equal rights at work.”
“The European Court of Justice has repeatedly had to challenge the decisions of our legislators, such as when UK courts ruled that pregnancy discrimination was not sex discrimination,” she adds.
“It is essential that these decisions are transparent, and that our politicians are accountable to the people should they attempt to roll back women’s hard-won rights.”
Although the UK has a female Prime Minister at the helm, women are still seriously underrepresented in politics with only 30 per cent of MPs being female.
Despite a lack of political representation in parliament, the voices of women are still being heard at Westminster with the Women and Equalities Select Committee determined to protect the rights of women.
Last week the Committee published a report stating that the Government must act to embed equality into law and policy in the UK post Brexit.
“There are two concrete priorities which the Government should focus on: first, to include a clause on equality in the Great Repeal Bill saying that there will be no going backwards on current levels of equality protections, and second, to amend the Equality Act 2010 to empower Parliament and the courts to declare whether new laws are compatible with equality principles,” explains Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and Conservative MP Maria Miller.
“If the Government wants to maintain the current level of equality protection for vulnerable groups including pregnant women and disabled travellers, it must take active steps to embed equality into UK law,” adds Miller.
“Our recommendations would go a long way to ensuring that the UK retains a strong and undiminished record of equality after it leaves the EU.”
Mind the pay gap
Recommendations are what they are though — recommendations only — and last month the Government rejected most of the 17 recommendations proposed by the Women and Equalities Select Committee on closing the gender pay gap.
Women’s rights charities are also lobbying to protect equality rights. The Fawcett Society has been working closely with a cross-party group of MPs to ensure the protection of women rights after Article 50 has been triggered.
“Securing a meaningful commitment on women’s rights and equality is fundamental and should be an early step in the process,” explains Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, Sam Smethers.
“Writing this into the Great Repeal Bill would provide much of the reassurance we need. We have to be sure that powers that Ministers will be given, in that bill, are not then used to unravel protections at a later date.”
In an ever turbulent political world, Britain’s future post-Brexit is unpredictable. Recent political movements have sparked a fresh engagement for many. Smethers remains positive: “We want to use Brexit to go further and make the UK the best place to be a woman. So let’s do more than defending what we have, let’s set out a progressive agenda for the future.”