Brexit may threaten years of work made toward improving gender equality in the United Kingdom by eroding employment rights for women and cutting funding for women’s services, according to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
The report, “Pressing for progress: women’s rights and gender equality in 2018,” was published Monday and is the organization’s largest review of women’s rights.
It points out that that important provisions in the 2010 Equality Act, a sweeping anti-discrimination law, aren’t included in the current version of the Brexit bill. As a consequence they won’t be binding under UK law, even though the government has promised the provisions will remain in place after the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
“The priority must now be ensuring that women and girls of all ages can enjoy their basic right to feel safe in their everyday lives. Our recommendations are intended to improve the lives of women and girls and to protect their fundamental rights,” said ECHR Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath.
Assuming the Brexit bill is passed in its current form, it wouldn’t include the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which, among other things, upholds the rights to non-discrimination, the rights of children and the right to fair and just working conditions, according to the report.
The report, which was being presented Monday to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in Geneva, Switzerland, also cites the loss of funding for the EU Rights Equality and Citizenship Program, which aims to promote “equality between women and men and prevent violence against children, young people, women and other groups at risk.”
Gender inequality remains rife in the UK
The report noted improvements in terms of bridging the gender gap in the UK, but also argues there are many areas where the UK is still severely underachieving.
Only 32% of representatives in the House of Commons are women, ranking the UK 41st in the world on that metric, behind countries such as Timor-Leste, Burundi and Belarus.
Parliament is “still more akin to a gentleman’s club than a modern legislature,” said Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a UK-based charity that campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights.
The number of victims of sexual offenses in the UK is on the rise, and reports of “honor-based” violence – mostly attacks on girls or women thought to have disgraced their families – have increased 54% since 2014, according to the EHRC review. Some 95% of rape victims are women, the report says.
The employment rate for women has been rising – it is currently at 71% – but still falls below that of men, which stands at 80%. And the jobs that women have are still more likely to be lower-paid, less secure and part-time.
Although movements such as #MeToo “continue to shine a spotlight on areas where women are being failed,” according to the ECHR’s Hilsenrath, sexual harassment continues to be a problem in the workplace.
Maternity discrimination also remains a serious problem, as 11% of mothers reported “they were forced to leave their job.”
“Shared parental leave and flexible working (hours) haven’t changed the fundamentals of who is doing unpaid care work – it still primarily falls to women,” said the Fawcett Society’s Smethers, adding that “54,000 mothers lose their jobs each year simply for being pregnant.”
The EU’s role
The importance of the EU in promoting and pressuring the UK to adopt more policies around gender equality was the subject of a panel debate in London earlier this year. The panel, which focused on the implications of Brexit on gender equality, included, among other guests, the European Parliament Liaison Office in the UK; Gender Five Plus, which calls itself the first European feminist think tank; and Mary Honeyball, a member of the European Parliament.
“Looking back, we see that the UK has been called to act by the EU on several issues concerning especially women, such as maternity leave. The fact that the EU has repeatedly talked about some gender-equality issues has affected the actions taken at the national level, including the UK,” said Jill Rubery, a professor at the University of Manchester, during the panel.
The EHRC report says the loss of EU support resulting from the current Brexit arrangements could exacerbate the many inequalities confronting women and minorities in the UK.
As such, the report lists various recommendations, foremost of which that there be “no regression in the respect, protection and fulfillment of human rights as a result of the changes introduced following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.”
It also recommends the UK ensure that any loss of EU funding won’t result in the dismantling of current human-rights and equality infrastructure, such as support for female victims of domestic abuse and violence.