Protections for women could be “at the bottom of the list of priorities” when Britain leaves the European Union, leaving campaigners fearful that gender equality will lag even further behind other countries on the continent.
Sam Smethers, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, says she wants to make sure Britain is “the best place to be a woman”.
But “rising hostility”, increased online harassment and unequal pay are just some of the challenges facing British women today, according to the Fawcett Society.
This has prompted the women’s charity to launch a nine-month review into sex discrimination law as concerns grow that Brexit may lead to the clock being turned back on women’s rights.
Smethers tells The Huffington Post UK: “We’re not being anti-Brexit, we’re not trying to turn the clock back on that decision.
“What we want to do is to make sure that we move forward in a progressive way and what we don’t want to do, in any way, is to allow us to slip backwards or give people who want to turn the clock back the opportunity to do so.”
Smethers says that she does not want to see protections for women “at the bottom of the list of priorities” when Britain does leave the EU.
The Fawcett Society’s review is being headed by Dame Laura Cox, a retired High Court Justice, and co-ordinated by equality law expert Gay Moon. Panel members include equality law experts and a number of QCs.
The Fawcett Society is seeking assurances from the government on a number of issues surrounding women’s rights.
Main areas of concern regarding women’s rights and safety post-Brexit:
1. Maintaining employment rights and protections derived from EU legislation.
2. Ensuring EU co-operation to end violence against women and girls, tackle female genital mutilation and end human trafficking will continue unaffected.
3. The desirability of continuing to recognise restraining orders placed on abusive partners in EU Member States in the UK and restraining orders placed on abusive partners in the UK across the EU.
But the fallout from June’s vote has sparked concern from campaigners.
Hostility towards women, particularly Muslim women, has grown in recent months, according to Tell Mama, which supports victims of anti-Muslim hate.
Muslim women are among those “very much targeted as a result of the Brexit vote”, Smethers says.
Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama, describes the EU Referendum result as a “trigger point” which created an opportunity for those who harboured resentment and hatred of Muslims to express their views.
Following the EU Referendum there was a sharp increase in the number of racially or religiously aggravated offences recorded by police.
The number of racially or religiously aggravated offences recorded by the police in July 2016 was 41% higher than in July 2015.
“We saw a heightened spike of anti-Muslim hatred that was predominantly and overwhelmingly directed, at the street level, at visible Muslim women,” Mughal tells the Huffington Post UK.
Such targeting of Muslim women was not just unique to Brexit, he says. The murder of Lee Rigby, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the terror attacks in Paris are all believed to have had a similar effect.
“At each one of these points gender and visible religiosity is identically linked.
“And so in the minds of the perpetrator, when they target a Muslim woman, there is a strong likelihood that their view of gender and their view of women in general is quite raw and that will then be allied with a sense of hatred or animosity towards Muslims in general, so the two things go together.
“It is that visibility and it is that gender component which... creates the mix for somebody to think that they can say these things.”
The impact of such hostility can be particularly damaging, eroding away at women’s confidence and independence.
International events have also added to the “permissive nature” of abuse against women, campaigners say.
“There has been a rising hostility towards women.
“A permissive nature has developed, both in the climate here, but also internationally with the events in the States and the rise of [Donald] Trump,” Smethers says.
“Looking at the presidential campaign, the way Hillary [Clinton] was targeted and the comments made about her, the fact he [Trump] made those comments about physically assaulting women and getting away with it - I think they have all compounded to create the things we thought we had all seen the back of,” Smethers adds.
“It wouldn’t be such a permissive climate for those kinds of views to be aired but that’s what legitimises people who think they now can live with impunity and get away with it.”
Such concerns contributed to the Fawcett Society deciding to launch a review into how Brexit will really affect women’s rights.
Dame Cox says: “Some of the basic rights that we now take for granted – pregnancy and maternity rights, part-time workers’ rights, equal pay for work of equal value – are all at risk if the UK becomes a low regulation economy.
“But this isn’t just about protecting what we have, it’s also about addressing gaps or uncertainties in the laws currently in place and ensuring that women have access to the law.
“For example, a woman of colour, or an older woman, cannot bring a discrimination claim on the grounds of their dual identity. Is that acceptable in the 21st century?
“Is it acceptable that misogyny is not recognised as a hate crime?
“And we still have a gender pay gap, which is acknowledged to be unacceptable.
“How best can our laws be improved so as to assist in closing it? These are the kinds of issues we will be considering.”
The review will consider the effectiveness of the law to date in addressing gender inequality, including access to justice.
It will also identify gaps in protections for women and recommend how those gaps could be addressed.
Some of the key area the review will look at are:
- Employment law and discrimination including pregnancy discrimination, sexist dress codes, equal pay including pension provision.
- The application of the definition of indirect discrimination.
- Family friendly rights for parents and carers including possible consolidation.
- Harassment including on the internet and social media.
- Hate crime and its limits.
- Multiple discrimination, particularly intersectional discrimination and whether Section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 in its current form is sufficient.
- Public sector equality duty and specific duties.
- The balance of individual rights vs the responsibility of the organisation to promote equality.
In a report assessing what the UK looks like for young women, the Fawcett Society gives a damning verdict.
“The UK is slipping down the league table on gender equality internationally.
“In 2006, Britain was 9th in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality league table, but we had moved down nine places to 18th in 2015, even dropping as far as 26th in 2014.
“We currently rank 48th in the world for women’s representation in parliament, and at current rates of progress it will take 62 years to close the gender pay gap,” the report reads.
But the effects of leaving the EU could make it even harder for women to level the playing field.
From a solely legal perspective, there are also concerns regarding how existing and future legislation from the EU will affect human rights in the UK.
Three ways in which Brexit will legally impact human rights:
1. The Great Repeal Bill.
The bill will give powers to the Secretary of State to revoke legislation at a future date without further debate.
2. Europe “moving forward” without the UK.
Any legislation Europe puts in place, the UK will not be entitled to. “So Europe can move forward and we might not”, Smethers says.
3. The loss of a “progressive institution”.
The European Courts of Justice (ECJ) will no longer be available to British citizens. Smethers points out that the ECJ always gave people the opportunity to challenge a ruling if their claim in the UK was unsuccessful. “Significant rulings” include equal pay and part time workers rights. “So without that we won’t have that progressive institution to go to so where will the next bit of progress come from?”, Smethers asks.
The Fawcett Society is keen to stress they are not anti-Brexit, but want to ensure women’s rights are not eroded after leaving the EU.
“If we take the Prime Minister at face value she said she wants to build on workers rights and she doesn’t want to take things away.
“That’s great, let’s do that then. Let’s move forward in a productive and progressive way,” Smethers adds.
“We need to create a legislative framework fit for the 21st century. One that genuinely protects the rights of the individual - rights that they can exercise by giving them access to justice - and promotes equality.
“The Prime Minister has also made clear that, if necessary, she will take the UK down a low tax low regulation path. That can only mean us turning the clock back on women’s rights and we cannot allow that to happen.”
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today
Through blogs, features and video, we’ll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity.