We can’t let women’s rights and welfare become collateral damage after Brexit

Can the UK government be trusted to protect and respect women’s human rights after we leave the EU? 

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With parliament debating the House of Lords’ amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill this Tuesday, Brexit is never far from the headlines.

But in all the subsequent debates, where are women being mentioned?

Since June 2016, there has been no parliamentary debate on the effect leaving the EU will have on women, and no Gender Equality Impact Assessment. Yet from workplace legislation to healthcare and economic equality, Brexit will have huge repercussions on women’s lives.

The past 40 years of improvements to women’s legal rights have been underpinned by EU law. The government’s EU Withdrawal Bill plans to convert current EU legislation into UK law. However, in its current form, the bill also grants ministers wide-ranging powers to amend or repeal legislation. With the proposed introduction of sweeping “Henry VIII” powers, women’s rights could be under threat.

So can the UK government be trusted to protect and respect women’s human rights and promote further equality once we Brexit?

Its current track record suggests not. The three Tory-led governments since 2010 have repeatedly treated equality and social justice as being “nice to have” in moments of prosperity, but disposable in times of economic turbulence. With every Brexit scenario leading to reduced growth and greater uncertainty, this trend is at risk of continuing.

Take one of the most important women workers’ rights underpinned by EU Legislation: the Pregnant Workers’ Directive. Introduced in 1992, it protects the rights of pregnant women in the workplace. In 2011, MEPs proposed adding in 20 weeks of maternity leave at full pay. Leading Brexiteer Chris Grayling responded by calling the move “costly” and “socially regressive”. Grayling stated that “when member states are trying to balance their books in difficult times this is the wrong approach to adopt.” Similarly, his colleague Martin Callanan has called the directive a “barrier to employment” that could be “scrapped”.

Then there’s the EU Directive on Victims’ Rights, which guarantees women access to specialist support services. Already, the government has ignored the need to guarantee women’s services, with funding cuts causing the closure of a fifth of women’s refuges since 2010.

Activists have long used the EU Directive as grounds to oppose these austerity-driven cuts. Yet Brexit is likely to bring more economic pressure, while depriving activists of EU standards to lobby the government with.

However, the problem goes beyond simply ignoring what are thought of as women’s issues during the Brexit process. There has also been a failure to address the economic impact of Brexit on women.

Trade, manufacturing and security dominate Brexit conversations. In a recent talk on the gendered impact of Brexit, Professor Roberta Guerinna and Dr Toni Haastrup argue that these are typically viewed as “male concerns”.

Most manufacturing jobs are male-dominated (in automation, for example, 84 per cent of workers are men). However, significant sections of manufacturing are dominated by women workers, such as textiles. Women make up 55 per cent of the employees in this industry, which is predicted to face a squeeze post-2019. This is rarely discussed.

Similarly, health and social care is expected to have increased costs once we leave the EU, as well as experience a sharp decrease in staffing levels. Women make up 77 per cent of workers in this sector, and 62,000 of those women are from the EEA, leaving them with an uncertain future post Brexit. One could argue that the decrease in staff could lead to more economic opportunities for women from the UK in this female-centric industry. However, the Women’s Budget group suggest that “while this may lead to increased employment opportunities for UK women these may be short-lived if the projected negative impact of Brexit on the economy leads to reduced spending on public services.”

Further, the Women’s Budget Group suggests that “gendered employment effects of new trading arrangements are likely, in which women gain less than men do”. The impact on women workers’ economic equality needs to be discussed far more than it has been so far.

Then there’s security — which is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as gender. Yet most terrorists are revealed to have a history of domestic abuse. Some attacks, such as the horrific Manchester bombing, have been directly targeted at women and girls.

According to research conducted by RAND, a “zero-sum” Brexit and “messy divorce” risks the UK and the EU becoming “weaker and less secure”. Theresa May herself said “a failure to reach agreement would mean our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened." It’s vital we include women’s perspectives on security, particularly in light of terrorism’s relationship with gender-based violence. 

Of course, two women’s voices are being heard loud and clear in Brexit – Theresa May and Arlene Foster. But it’s not enough to have women in charge when concerns affecting women who don’t occupy positions at the apex of power remain unaddressed. We need to centre women’s experiences in the Brexit process, and ensure the impact on women is considered when we talk about its implications for trade, finance and security.

Brexit is touted as an opportunity to shape the kind of country the UK could become. But social justice has repeatedly been treated as something only for times of prosperity, and dumped in moments of crisis. Unless we bring more women’s voices to the Brexit debate, then we risk accepting that women’s equality is merely collateral damage from Brexit.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.