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Can Women Count on the UK?

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Prime Minister David Cameron, talking about the Arab spring in his address to the UN General Assembly, pointed out the link between strong economies and democracies, on the one hand, and women's active participation, on the other.

But can we count on the UK to push for women's rights? In fact, rather than promoting women's rights, at home and abroad, the UK government is opposing the two most important treaties this year on women's rights. This does not bode well for the women who Cameron referred to in his speech.

Time and time again it has been shown that economies are healthier and democracies more stable where women are girls are accepted as equal to men and boys. But that basic understanding is at risk of being forgotten.

In Egypt for example, deep rooted problems for women such as their low-level of economic participation aren't being addressed. Add to that sexual harassment and exclusion from the new political process as well as high rates of domestic violence and marital rape and you see the uphill battle Egyptian women face. If these issues are ignored, the gains of the revolution will not extend to women.

There are hopeful signs too, largely thanks to strong women and girls standing up for their rights and sensible men who understand that protecting and including women means better and more resourceful societies. Women's activists are fighting for recognition and have said, "It's our revolution as well." In Tunisia women's rights activists and supporters have achieved real successes: a gender parity law that might not guarantee full equality of men and women, but at least recognises the importance of including women on political party lists. Another positive move was the lifting of Tunisia's key reservations to CEDAW, the UN's women's rights treaty. We need to back up the women who are pressing for their rights.
Unfortunately, David Cameron's government has up until now not always delivered. It has played the spoiler in the two important international initiatives this year to advance women's rights and economic empowerment.

In May, all countries in Europe came together to sign a ground-breaking new convention on preventing and punishing violence against women, an issue that affects around a quarter of all women and costs the UK around £3 billion a year. Practical in nature, this convention has the potential to make a real contribution to the eradication of violence against women in Europe by pushing for hotlines, shelters, prevention mechanisms, protection orders and access to justice.
But the UK hampered the process with proposals that would have damaged the core of the convention, and by pushing for limitations on protections for female immigrants and asylum seekers. The rest of Europe rejected the Cameron government's proposals, but the UK government has so far refused to be bound by the convention.

Then in June, the international community finally came together after decades of trying, to extend legal protections to domestic workers and live-in maids, most of them women, who have traditionally been left unprotected from abuse.

Domestic workers face a wide range of grave abuses and exploitation, including excessive working hours without rest, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and trafficking. When the International Labour Organisation overwhelmingly voted to adopt the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which for the first time sets standards for millions of women worldwide, diplomats, domestic workers, and employers' organisations all erupted in excited applause.

Even in the cases Cameron was specifically referring to in his speech last week, the UK has faltered. During the recent UN Security Council negotiations to establish a UN mission in Libya, the UK was reluctant to include any references to women's participation.

Cameron needs to prove that he is serious about supporting women's rights, abroad and at home. He has to show that there will be no negotiations without women at the table, and that women are crucial no matter where they live, and no matter what their backgrounds.