While implications on mobility, trade and the economy constantly are at the center of discussions surrounding Brexit, few are aware of its impact on those who will be hit the hardest: women and minority groups. Research has shown that Brexit could be a disaster for women in the U.K., especially those who are poor or vulnerable. It is clear that Brexit poses a great threat to women and their rights, as it could “turn back the clock” on gender equality.
So, how will women’s rights be weakened? A withdrawal from the E.U. means that certain women’s rights could be weakened post-Brexit. As a member of the European Union, E.U. laws automatically override any domestic laws. Although the E.U. hasn’t handled women’s issues perfectly in the past either, many of the most significant women’s rights have been granted by it and it has, in many cases, acted as a form of safety net for women in Europe. That safety net will be lost in Brexit since all E.U. laws will be converted into U.K. laws in the so-called Withdrawal Bill, which means that laws that protect minority groups and women’s rights suddenly will become removable by Ministers.
This is a major problem since it has been identified that the British government tends to prioritize business interests over concerns regarding gender equality, in the sense that it in the past has been willing to support deals that would benefit certain financial interests at the expense of women’s issues, such as reproductive rights. Therefore, there is a high risk that laws and policies that enforce and contribute to gender equality will be watered down over time, according to researchers. Workers’ rights are particularly critical, especially equal pay laws, parental leave rights and equal payment an hour between part-time and full-time jobs (part-time jobs are occupied by an overwhelming majority of women).
In a speech to the European Parliament in 2012, the current Brexit minister Martin Callanan talked about how certain important workers’ rights, such as the Pregnant Workers Directive which protects the safety and basic rights of women during and after pregnancy, should be removed since they are “barriers to actually employing people.” If these rights are eroded after Brexit — and research shows they probably will be — it would hurt women all over the U.K.
Unfortunately, the problem does not end with legislation. According to researchers, women will be more likely to suffer because of Brexit’s economic impact. It is well-known that the U.K.’s economy will plummet directly after Brexit comes into place on March 29, 2019. The money that the country was promised to earn through exiting the E.U. will immediately be wiped away by any fall in the GDP. Although it is impossible to predict exactly how severe the impact will be since the U.K. hasn’t re-negotiated its trade deals yet, it is safe to say that its GDP will decline substantially. According to many analysts, women will be significantly more vulnerable to a fall in the GDP. Not only are more women poor, and therefore more affected by an economic crisis, they are also more dependent on public services and would be more hurt by austerity. By 2020, women are predicted to bear 85% of the burden of tax and benefit changes done by the government. A recent large-scale report done by feminist experts from Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society highlighted the impacts of cuts in public spending:
If the government decides to cut public spending in response to a fall in GDP, in the way that Governments since 2010 have done in response to the 2008 economic crisis, this will have clear implications for widening inequality between women and men. As WBG and others have repeatedly shown, public services and associated social infrastructure are relied upon more by women than by men. Reductions in public spending have a disproportionate negative impact on women as the primary users of public services, the majority of workers in the public sector and the main providers of unpaid work when public services are cut.
Tragically, Brexit could continue to hurt women in other ways. A large part of the organizations and research projects that help to fight violence against women and girls are mainly financed by the E.U. and as of now, their funding is not planned to be replaced. It means that many of the organizations that help to make the country a better and safer place for women could be lost or weakened. Additionally, women who face multiple disadvantages, one of the most marginalized groups in the U.K., could lose their support since many of the organizations and services that offer help to them mainly are funded by the E.U. These are women who have experienced violence, abuse, trauma and poverty and who suffer at high rates from mental health problems, homelessness and alcohol and drug addictions. There are already insufficient services that support them in a right and beneficial way, and funding cuts for the ones that exist could further hurt the vulnerable women that rely on such services. Influential institutions and lobbying groups on women’s issues will be lost as well since they are linked to the E.U.
While there are even more ways that gender equality will be weakened than what has been mentioned, it is safe to say that the Brexit campaigners who promised that Brexit will be an opportunity-filled, “very exciting time for women” couldn’t have been more wrong. If you want to support one of the organizations and campaigns that work to spread awareness and persuade politicians, visit the #FaceHerFuture campaign. Unless more people become aware of the issue and positive change is made on a government level, millions of women could be left to suffer in silence because of Brexit’s gender equality push-back.
Photo: Paul Bissegger