As UK women’s ngos prepare for the 59th Session of UN Commission on the Status of Women ( CSW) that will review Member States’ implementation of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) in March 2015, many will be critical of the government's record, not just over the last 20 years, but specifically over the last four, in which the Coalition government's austerity policies have had a devastating impact on the lives of UK women and girls.
Policies that have turned the clock back on UK women’s rights include the axing by David Cameron, in 2012, of the gender equality impact assessment duty, declaring it is no longer a “legal requirement”; the cuts to funding of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which monitors all rights to fairness, dignity and respect, from £70m in 2007 to a derisory £15m in 2015; and cuts to legal aid which have had a devastating effect on women’s rights, particularly in relation to domestic violence, and women’s access to benefits and services. The coalition government has still not ratified the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women, although it has signed it, a further example of this government’s distaste for supporting international instruments focusing on gender issues.
The low value the government attaches to the potential of women's ngos contributions to policy developments on gender issues was revealed this year in their response to UN WOMEN’s request that Member States collaborate with their women’s ngos in answering a questionnaire on BPFA implementation. The Government Equality Office (GEO) declined to collaborate, leaving UK Women’s ngos, now regrouped in the UK NGO CSW Alliance after the government abolished the Women's National Commission in 2010, to undertake their own shadow report. The shadow report has been prepared, but it has not been officially recognised by the government. This was precisely what UN WOMEN had wanted to avoid.
The Conservative’s pledge that should they win the next election, they will feel free to ignore the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and leave the European Convention on Human Rights, and scrap the 1998 UK Human Rights Act (HRA), is a further blow to progress to protect the human rights of women and girls.
The ECHR and the HRA have been used to help women fleeing domestic violence, protect reproductive rights, stop cases of modern day slavery, ensure equal treatment of LGBT people, stop workplace discrimination, guarantee equal pay, the minimum wage, maternity pay and leave. Such moves would raise questions about our membership of the Council of Europe and of the EU itself.
The status of women in all EU countries has been greatly advanced through the ECHR, and their claims to equality strengthened by the right to take their grievances to the Strasbourg Court when they have exhausted all domestic remedies. Depriving women and girls of these rights is taking the UK back half a century. The government's attitude causes great damage to the UK’s reputation, and question its credibility in promoting human rights elsewhere in the world,.
Government indifference to obligations under International Conventions
In July 2013, the UK government was severely criticised by the CEDAW Committee for its failure to comply with a number of articles of the 1979 CEDAW UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Although the UK was among the first batch of UN Member States to sign up to the CEDAW in 1981, it did not ratify it until 1986, and only ratified the Optional Protocol in 2007 that enables women to make a complaint on violation of their rights directly to the UN. This lack of interest in the substance of the Convention has marked the attitudes of successive governments for the last 33 years.
A telling illustration of the UK’s indifference to the Convention is the fact that not once, in the 35 years of its existence, has any government nominated a UK person to the CEDAW Committee. Moreover, we have a stack of “reservations” to the Convention that the Committee has regularly requested be removed because they are “incompatible” with its object and principles, for example our immigration and asylum laws.
The CEDAW Committee is composed of 23 “experts of high moral standing and competence”. Nominations are made by the States Parties, in our case the FCO, from “among their nationals”, to serve in their personal capacity, and are elected for a term of four years.
Time and time again, UK Women’s ngos have suggested the names of excellent well qualified people for nomination. The response from the present government has implied that there are no suitable women to undertake this vital work.
When the opportunity arose for a nomination in 2009, the government said it had no “resources” for such a nomination process, since its energies were focused on securing representation at the ICC and at the Human Rights Council. But further clarification came this June, when, in the House of Lords Baroness Northover answered Baroness Hodgson’s question on this topic with these words:
“The UK has never nominated a candidate to this committee, however we welcome the contribution other members make”. When Baroness Hodgson suggested that perhaps in the next round of nominations in 2016, the UK could put a name forward, Baroness Northover made it clear there were no such plans and that the government was not prepared to allocate the necessary “resources” she said would be needed to get such an expert identified and proposed.
All around the world, other governments have not found lack of resources a problem. Why do we?
There are many extremely able women in this country who could brilliantly contribute to the work of the CEDAW Committee and whose credentials and qualifications qualify them superbly as experts. Furthermore, UK women’s NGOs have lobbied intensively for the development of a roster of suitably qualified women who could be nominated by the FCO to serve on other UN international commissions and bodies. There are rumours that such a roster does exist, but who is on it, and how they got nominated remains a mystery to us who are non-governmental bodies. Frequent enquiries to the FCO and DFID concerning this “roster” have never received a response.
The failure of successive governments to promote the existence of CEDAW, regard it as normative, or incorporate the Convention into our domestic law, is recorded in the CEDAW Committee’s concluding observations in 1999 and 2009. In July, 2013, the Committee made it quite clear that “while the Equality Act of 2010 and domestic legislation incorporate certain provisions of the Convention, its legislation does not incorporate all provisions of the Convention.” And therefore further action was required.
At this same meeting the UK government was censured for its failure to mitigate the impact of austerity measures on women and services provided to women.
The Committee expressed concern that the Women’s National Commission, abolished in the “bonfire of the quangos” by the government in 2010, had been replaced by the Government Equality Office whose mandate does not extend to Northern Ireland, nor represents or is composed of UK women’s ngos. There has been no new replacement to give UK women a voice to government.
The government is also rebuked for having no national strategy to implement the CEDAW throughout the UK. It queried the effectiveness of the Government Equality Office (GEO), now part of the Home Office, to engage in constructive dialogue with women’s organisations, because it is now part of the government.
The GEO’S response was that, “The government wanted a more direct and accountable process in its place. It established a dedicated engagement programme aimed at women and women’s organisations which is managed from within the GEO and works closely with other government departments and devolved administrations”. How can a government department properly “represent” the voices of women and girls?
Inevitably the women's vote will be targeted and fought for by all competing parties in the next few months, but there have been no credible assurances from any of them that they will promote real gender equality and the empowerment of women should they attain power. Nor did any of the party conferences give much time to our need to comply with obligations under international laws and agreements to advance the status of women.
Women make up more than half the electorate; the party that is brave enough to assert a true feminist policy - committed to gender equality and respect for international and regional human rights conventions and agreements, and commits to nominating a British woman to the CEDAW in 2016 could be the winner in 2015. Let us see.