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As Theresa May Becomes the UK's Second Female Prime Minister, How Safe Are Women's Rights on Her Watch?

15/07/2016 08:17 | Updated 15 July 2016
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

British women fought long and hard for the right to vote, and the suffrage struggle has been immortalised in different forms. This includes the New Dawn illumination in St Stephen's Hall in the Palace of Westminster, the film Suffragette which went on general release only a few months ago, and the song in the Disney classic, Mary Poppins. But what would our 'sister suffragettes' think in terms of how far we have come in terms of women's rights and equality?

On the political side, in the UK, some women got the vote in 1918 and all women equally with men in 1928. Female representation has slowly, slowly, very slowly crept up to 29%, and a few days ago Theresa May become the UK's second female Prime Minister.

The process of fighting for economic equality included the campaigning by the machinist women at the Ford Dagenham Plant in 1970s and the need to introduce equal pay legislation as part of the process of joining Europe, economically. However, women in the UK continued to be discriminated against in practice, because of gender segregation in work. In an attempt to counteract this, legislation was put into place on equal pay for work of equal value and this was strengthened again with the Equality Act of 2010. Even since then, there have been legal challenges because of continued discrimination.

In terms of the social context, norms have changed dramatically and different forms of violence against women have become criminal offences, including domestic violence in 1976. However, it wasn't until 2015 that legislation was passed acknowledging the problem of coercive control.

Whether you are a woman here in the UK, or anywhere else in the world, laws that protect, and guarantee human rights are good for all. The Human Rights Act is a crucial part of our government's toolkit to respect and protect women's rights - and wider society too. It has been used by women both inside and outside the courtroom to challenge unfair decisions to remove children from their mothers, to secure greater protection for domestic violence victims, to uphold the dignity of women living in care homes, and to safeguard vulnerable asylum seeking women with little other protection and respect for their rights. It is an act that is being applied to uphold fairness and dignity, to protect citizens.

Crucially, the Act can be used to hold public bodies to account. It has been used to bring about justice for victims and survivors of domestic violence and rape, when they were failed by inadequate police investigations, most notably in the case of John Worboys - a serial rapist known as the "Black Cab Rapist". We are still reeling from the revelations of countless cases of sexual violence and exploitation of primarily girls who have been failed by police and social services in towns and cities across the UK - the last thing we need is any further erosion of our human rights.

Yet the government was, until recently, considering repealing the Human Rights Act and bringing into force a new British Bill of Rights. I hope our new female PM will now abandon the idea of such an erosion to human rights - to women's rights.

For why repeal an act that is being used, one that the UK was centrally involved in drafting and that is about the right to life, liberty and security of person, the right to a fair trial, protection from torture and ill treatment, to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, speech and assembly, the right to marry, to free elections, to fair access to education and not to be discriminated against.

Why would you repeal such an Act? It seems to me that there are four possible reasons. The first is that the new Bill will give us the same protection, in which case why are we spending time and money on drafting something new, if in essence nothing is going to change?

Alternatively, it could be that the new Bill will give us greater protection, but that could easily and be done, at less expense, by simply adding rights to the existing one, rather than repealing it altogether. A third option is that the new Bill would give us different rights, but there hasn't been a demand for a new set of rights. Or the final option is that the new Bill would take some away, weakening its powers to hold individual and public bodies to account. What a pity that would be for us in the UK and what a dangerous message to send out to the rest of the world - how would the British government continue to promote human and women's rights internationally, with confidence and authority, whilst clawing these back domestically?

We rely on the law to safeguard justice. It is the existence of laws and challenges when they are not followed that sustains our democracy. We are now likely to be entering a period of high economic instability and the Brexit vote is also likely to result in the loss of a number of legal protections from the EU around worker's rights for example. Now more than ever our Human Rights Act is pivotal.

We must remember just how hard women have fought at every turn, for their voices to be heard, their experiences to matter, and for their rights to be recognised. My great-grandmother once said that 'justice and judgement lie often a world apart'. We must question the judgement to repeal the Human Rights Act, and the potential it has to push justice further out of reach of those that need it the most both here and abroad. We need to watch out, sister suffragettes.

Protect our human rights - protect women's rights at savetheact.com

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