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8 March 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 6:45am

Why women need a British Bill of Rights

Whatever the outcome of the EU vote, women will need protection, says Sophie Walker.

By Sophie Walker

It’s International Women’s Day – time for the annual crush of articles, features and interviews celebrating and commiserating a woman’s lot.

I find it uplifting, this day of global discussion. But I also find it sad to see the scramble – all of us raising our voices in the hope that, on this day designated to the ‘other half’ of the population, one or two important points might catch the attention of (predominantly male) decision-makers and politicians.

In the run-up to this year’s event most of the talk among decision-makers has centred on Britain’s European referendum. It has been an overwhelmingly male debate, so much so that UK media has written about the need to hear women’s voices.

The Women’s Equality Party exists to amplify the voices of women in Britain; to push gender equality to the top of the political agenda so that the needs and experiences of every citizen are taken into account, whether it is our two-thirds male Parliament making vital decisions, or, as in this case, a public vote informed by squadrons of male-dominated media and cavalcades of male politicians.

So on this International Women’s Day, WE are proposing a female focus amid the Brexit brawl: a Women’s Bill of Rights. Leave the EU and we need to ensure that equalities guaranteed by Europe are not rolled back. Stay and there is much more work to be done.

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In many respects, gender equality is a European achievement even if the motor for change has not always been a yen for social justice but sometimes just a desire by member nations to prevent underpaid female workers in one country undercutting the labour market in another. We have made great strides in some important areas, such as maternity leave, equal pay, discrimination and harassment. As a result of EU gender policies, the UK has been required to expand its provisions for women’s rights in ways that directly impact the lives of women and men.

Women’s rights in the EU are largely focused on the role of women in the workplace – parental leave for example is only a right of full-time workers. The EU has few laws targeting those not in work, working or part-time, or flexibly employed women. And this group is largely made up of the most disadvantaged women.

Thus EU policy does little to address women’s disproportionate risk of poverty and inequality in much of the European continent – including the rights of migrant, asylum seeking and refugee women. But the referendum is a huge opportunity to build a vision for a more gender equal society. One that goes beyond just economics and dares to imagine a society at ease with itself.

Should the UK opt to remain in Europe, then we want to see a government that participates fully in the ongoing development of Europe’s equality doctrine. Instead of blustering, blocking and avoiding social policy debate, the UK should be leading the way on women’s equality legislation.

If the UK opts to leave Europe, however, it is essential that women’s existing, most fundamental, rights – established through the body of EU legislation, directives and interpretive frameworks – are protected, and that the work continues to address those areas not yet tackled.

That’s why the Women’s Equality Party today is putting forward a Women’s Bill of Rights, drawn from the existing EU and international frameworks, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, and also incorporating and invigorated by a renewed constitutional vision for women’s rights in the UK and beyond. This will gain in urgency if the UK government decides to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights but it is important in any case.

We will be working with our members to draw up this Bill of Rights and are keen to hear from anyone who would like to join our inclusive and diverse party to participate in this piece of work.

Nine million women were so turned off by the last general election that they didn’t vote. It would be understandable if women stayed away in droves on 23 June, but it is vital that we all vote in this referendum. It’s a vital opportunity for women to make their voices heard in this process of shaping Britain’s future. But whatever the outcome, WE know women still need protection and support, for the benefit of everybody.

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