What Brexit Could Mean for Women

01/07/2016 12:45 | Updated 01 July 2016

British women have gained enormously since the United Kingdom joined what is now the European Union in 1973. Gender equality has always been a core objective of the EU and continues to be so. We are still a long way from this being fully realised, but our membership of the union has already resulted in significant improvements in pay equality, parental leave, care for pregnant women and new mothers, childcare, social welfare, protection from discrimination, access to justice and ending violence against women and girls. We should take the very best of what the EU has accorded us and remind ourselves that these values are and always have also been our own.

€100 million has already been allocated to measures which will improve the rights of women and girls. In 2012, 28 % of the EU's aid included gender equality and women's empowerment as a principle or significant objective. If the UK leaves the EU, this funding will no longer be accessible.

Women's services have already been operating on a shoestring, stepping in not infrequently to bolster failing state provision. The government has already stated in recent days that Brexit will also mean that austerity measures such as tax hikes and cuts to public spending are likely to increase for all of us in the UK, but women are likely to be particularly affected.

A 2012 report from the Fawcett Society showed that "women are bearing the brunt of the cuts to public spending", resulting not only in reduced spending power, but also in diminished choices, access to employment and lower levels of personal safety. Women are also much more likely to be trafficked into the sex trade. The EU recognises this and its anti-trafficking directive was a key piece of legislation, which helps galvanise efforts to end it nationally and throughout the continent.

According to a 2015 report from LSE, analyses by the UK Women's Budget Group and the House of Commons library showed that 78.9% of welfare cuts fell on and will continue to fall on women - particularly single parents, while Equanomics UK found that "many B[lack]M[inority]E[thnic] women, are bearing a disproportionate burden from the recession and cuts". Instead of cutting funding further, post-Brexit, the government must commit to providing sustained and sufficient funding for women's services, led by the people closest to who they serve.

I have faith in everyone in Britain to be creative and to put our energies into the future. However, at this worrying point in time, we must also look at how we are going to secure the lives of women to benefit from equal opportunities and to be free from violence and discrimination. The EU recognises the specific everyday realities that women deal with. We are more likely to work part-time or flexibly. We are more likely than men to live in poverty and we are much more likely to face sexism, to deal with sexual violence, or to be trafficked into the sex trade.

But the risks facing women are more complex. Tell MAMA, which measures anti-Muslim attacks, has just issued the report on which murdered MP Jo Cox was collaborating. Attacks committed against Muslim women in public areas of the UK rose by 326% in 2015. Being a woman and from a minority community means you will face discrimination on both counts.

We have heard condemnation of hatred and prejudice from a couple of our political leaders. We need to hear it from all of them, repeatedly and in the strongest possible terms, especially from those whose campaign left a space for racism and bigotry to thrive and take on the cloak of acceptability. There is no measure of acceptability for racism and bigotry. We need leadership too from the press, which too frequently chooses the base ground rather than respect for its readers or indeed its own Press Code. And we need all those perpetrating violence and fomenting hatred to be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law.

Events in the world show us that particularly in times of great upheaval - often when they are most needed - human rights take a back seat. Whether the UK is inside or outside the EU, there is something very urgent that the government can commit to doing. To underscore its strong commitment to ending violence and discrimination against women, it must ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. This was partially shaped - and signed - by the UK. With so much now in jeopardy for women in the UK, this would at least be a firm commitment to indicate that the rights, safety and well-being of British women will not become part of any Brexit collateral damage.