Brexit must not equal a regression of women’s rights 

Catherine Fookes considers the implications of the Conservative leadership election on women’s rights

There is a temptation to view the election for the Tory leadership as far-removed from us here in Wales and to just ignore it as a political side-show, but we ignore it at our peril. With the new leader comes a new Prime Minister, and with a no-deal Brexit a real possibility, no one knows what will happen to our hard won women’s rights. 


At Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales we are working hard to try to mitigate any such damage by collaborating with our sisters from the other nations of the UK on the UK Joint Committee on Women  (UKJCW). UKJCW members work together on various areas which impact the four nations of the UK, for example, on supporting Northern Ireland in the fight to decriminalise abortion or collectively amplifying the voices of real women so that the United Nations gets a true picture of how the UK and Welsh Governments are implementing the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). 


As part of UKJCW, we at WEN Wales recently co-ordinated a letter to the Tory leadership hopefuls asking them to outline their positions on women’s rights and to commit to safeguarding them as priorities post-Brexit. Specifically, we asked them to tell us if they would enshrine all the rights women currently enjoy under EU law into domestic law and if they will commit to no regression of women’s rights post-Brexit. 


In a recent report the UN CEDAW Committee noted that the UK should ensure that ‘future change in legal provisions do not constitute a retrogression in the protection of women’s rights and adopt measures to ensure that its domestic legislation keeps pace with progress on women’s rights in the European Union.’ 


In the last two weeks the EU Council has adopted the Work-life Balance Directive to further promote equality between women and men across the EU. Currently, men have only limited incentives to take parental or paternity leave or assume caring responsibilities. The directive provides them with new opportunities to do so. This change should reduce the amount of unpaid work undertaken by women and allow them more time for paid employment. It will also contribute to closing the gender pay gap. But will our new Prime Minister sign up to it? 


The challenge of disentangling ourselves from decades of EU membership is not just about the legislation. It’s also about what we could lose in terms of collaboration: the networks, the shared projects on violence against women, the ideas that emanate from the vibrant feminist movement at the heart of the EU. We don’t want to divorce our European sisters. Fortunately for us, UKJCW is part of the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) and, at the recent annual meeting, we were all moved by the huge vote in favour of us staying part of the EWL. The lobby has amended its statutes and shown great solidarity so we can remain part of this fantastic network campaigning for women’s rights and equality across Europe. 


The EU is definitely moving the Women’s rights agenda forward and, thanks to the spirit of cooperation shown by EWL, UK NGOs will still be a part of it; but can we rely on our new Prime Minister to move in the same progressive direction? We’ll let you know when we get an answer to our letter. 


WEN Wales is the umbrella body campaigning for women’s rights in Wales. To join us in our fight for equality for women in Wales, click here


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


Catherine Fookes is Director of WEN (Women’s Equality Network) Wales

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