On average, worldwide, women enjoy only three-fourths the legal rights of men. Only six countries in the world grant women equal rights and all are European Union member states. Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, France, Latvia and Luxembourg have all enshrined gender equality into law. If Theresa May were really serious about tackling the burning injustices in our society, she could start with ensuring equality for woman was front and centre of her domestic policy.
Gender equality is a founding aim of the EU, and it is recognised as a fundamental right in EU law. Since the UK joined in 1973, working women have gained significantly from this strong underpinning of their rights. Brexit risks the progress the woman’s movement has made over the past 40 years, with May committed to removing us from the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
EU law has extended rights to equal pay and strengthened protection from discrimination based on gender. It has improved the treatment of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace and introduced new entitlements for parents to take time off. Many women also benefit from basic rights, like paid holiday, that were introduced at EU level – many of the two million workers who had no paid holiday before the Working Time Directive were part-time women.
Recently, the work-life balance directive has passed through the European Parliament and the Council. This new legislation addresses challenges faced by working parents and carers, both of whom are usually women. It improves the rights for men to take time off when they become fathers, and extends this right for second parents regardless of their gender. In the Council, the UK government was part of a small group of member states that lobbied for the legislation to be held-up.
The Women’s Budget Group has shown that one million women’s jobs are at risk from May’s Brexit deal, let alone a no deal scenario. It poses risks to all those in employment. In an independent legal opinion commissioned by the TUC, Michael Ford QC said “all the social rights in employment currently required by EU law would be potentially vulnerable” if Britain were outside the EU, with women’s rights being particularly at risk. Ford continued: “It is difficult to overstate the significance of EU law in protecting against sex discrimination. A history could be written based on the theme of progressive decisions of the ECJ correcting unprogressive tendencies of the domestic courts.” This covers hugely important legislation, such as equal pay for work of equal value, the right to protection from discrimination on grounds of pregnancy, equal pensions and increased sanctions and compensation for workplace discrimination.
Currently, European Protection Orders guarantee that “crime victims who are granted protection from their aggressors in one EU member state will be able to get similar protection if they move to another”; they are applicable across EU borders and recognised throughout the EU. What will their status be in the UK after exit day? If a woman is experiencing domestic violence in one EU country and then comes to the UK, followed by her partner, will she still be protected? As a former Home Secretary, Theresa May knows full well that we must have an EU-wide approach to tackling crime.
The NHS that was front and centre of the referendum campaign is also now in danger. 77% of all staff in the NHS are women, with more than 5% of NHS nurses coming from the EEA (the figure rising up to 20% in London). The Nursing and Midwifery Council have reported that since the referendum there has been a 96% drop in nurses from the EU joining the NHS, leaving hospitals with a shortage of around 40,000 nurses.
Achieving gender equality requires more than just changes to laws. Simone Veil, the first woman President of the European Parliament, made an Honorary Dame by the Labour government in 1998, said “pain is the root of knowledge”. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, we have seen that pain turn into protest and hopefully social progress. It has initiated change as women have challenged ingrained cultural norms and attitudes. But this is just the start of the conversation and it cannot be a false dawn. Women must have more power and more control over ourselves and the laws we create. Leaving the EU would make the gender equality that we have all fought for harder to achieve – and never has that been a more urgent issue than on International Women’s Day in 2019.
By members of the Women’s European Parliamentary Labour Party.
Here is a snapshot of some of the issues Labour women MEPs have worked on, ensuring that women’s rights have progressed over the past five years.
Julie Ward MEP: As a member of the women’s rights and gender equality committee in the European Parliament, I’ve worked on bringing an intersectional approach to the European Parliament. I’ve fought to promote diversity in the work of the committee, always highlighting the particular challenges faced by migrant women, Muslim women, women with disabilities or LBTIQ+ women. I was a rapporteur on the parliament‘s gender mainstreaming report that challenged male hegemony within European institutions. In my foreign affairs work, I pushed to adopt a gender perspective, with a particular focus on women human rights defenders. I have advocated for the importance of including women and young people in the political sphere, particularly in peace and reconciliation processes in the Middle East and in the Balkans. Working with women campaigners from Kosovo, I was instrumental in persuading the government to make financial reparation to women victims of sexual violence during war. I have also advocated for women in STEM, and co-authored a report on the potential for women in ‘Green Jobs‘.
Theresa Griffin MEP: Championing an economy and a society based on the needs of women and girls has been at the heart of my politics. Labour and her sister parties in the European Parliament have been at the forefront of promoting women’s rights in and around Europe, weaving gender mainstreaming into every piece of legislation and parliamentary report. I am proud to be member of a parliament so committed to tackling inequality between men and women head-on.
Within the committee on industry, research and energy, socialists have been able to reflect these priorities. In 2016, I strongly advocated for a gender-focused approach to energy policy, particularly as energy poverty affects women disproportionately. Within the Horizon Europe initiative, we have not only highlighted the poor representation by women within R&D but also developed policies seeking to involve more women in the field of research, calling on the commission to investigate how to encourage greater participation of women.