Women’s rights in the UK: we must keep moving forward

The 8 March, International Women’s Day, is a cause for celebration. It is an opportunity to mark the progress on our journey towards the realisation of women’s rights around the globe. Whilst there is much to celebrate, this year our march feels less like a journey and more like a standstill.

This week the international community gathers in New York to examine the advancement of women’s rights around the world as part of the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The UK is also preparing to appear before the UN Committee tasked with monitoring the Government’s progress on the promises we have made under the international law on women’s human rights – the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

The Government’s engagement with CEDAW is certainly welcome. As a State which prides itself on international human rights leadership it is important that we too step into the global spotlight and are accountable for action to guarantee basic rights here at home as well as abroad. Less heartening is what this spotlight reveals. The Government’s interim response to the UN Committee ahead of July’s full examination reveals a worrying picture which, in some instances, risks regression rather than progress for women’s rights in the UK.

For example, in relation to employment tribunals the report highlights that, as women are more likely to be low paid they are more likely to benefit from the remission scheme that will allow for some government subsidy of the very poorest people who cannot pay their legal fees.

In another section the report outlines how probation services are ensuring that women who are serving community sentences will be able to serve their sentences in appropriate settings that avoid situations where it is likely for there to be a lone female in a work group.

Are these the mark of a government taking active steps to achieve a more gender equal society? The fact that women continue to make up the poorest people in society, or that women are at risk of violence simply because they are a woman are not signs of progress. More worrying is that these examples reflect a worrying lack of ambition at the heart of government about what is needed to achieve gender equality in the UK.

As Eleanor Roosevelt stated shortly after drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights begin in small places close to home. The Government’s commitment to engaging with international human rights mechanisms is commendable, however it is important to remember that the point of human rights, including women’s human rights, is that they must be made real here at home.

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