UK women: the loss of an independent collective voice

As the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women opens in New York today, women's organisations from the UK find themselves ignored at home and excluded at the UN, says Annette Lawson
Annette Lawson
27 February 2012

When the coalition government in the UK began to implement the huge changes it wanted to see in the nature of the State and its relationship to the people, we, in the women’s sector became increasingly fearful.  Through 2010 we learned of the replacement of what we had with something called the Big Society.  Women muttered that we were the Big Society, that we were already volunteering, already running ‘communities’– that we could see not just a double burden of paid work and caring for family, but a triple burden of also re-creating our local worlds.

What we had not foreseen was that the Women's National Commission (WNC), which was set up in 1969 in response to the request from the United Nations that all member states should have ‘machineries of government’ that would include a mechanism to listen to women, to bring women’s organisations together and develop a voice to advise government, was also under threat.

The WNC was an umbrella of around 500 women’s organisations drawn from all over the UK and its task was ‘to enable all women, either individually or through organisations, to express their needs and changing priorities in such a way as to enable government to listen and act on what they hear.’ In December 2010 it was abolished.

The Fawcett Society saw the decision as “a clear indicator of the priority the new coalition attaches to furthering equality”. Our first reaction at the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO)  to the news that we were about to lose the WNC was to call a meeting at the Fawcett Society offices with the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC). Over the course of a year we consulted widely and developed a new model – ‘a hub’ -  to bring women acting at local, regional, and devolved country levels together three times a year to work on UK-wide issues. Our first letter to Ministers was delivered fast and focused on what we would need in government.  We asked for focal points on gender in every department, and that ngos with expertise be included both at Departmental level and in meetings of the Inter-ministerial group.  We asked that any new structure for women would be placed high  - at Prime-Ministerial or Cabinet Office level.  Our model for the women's sector is non-hierarchical – a web or hub at the centre – bringing networks and organisations together, campaigning, and offering advice to government at local, regional, devolved and national levels. 

We have not been invited to meet with government ministers. And the proposal for the hub has not received a response. It has been thrown back on us to organise ourselves as ‘civil' society without any funding or support from government. In summary, we in the UK have lost the gender architecture which is an essential part of effective government should it seriously wish to promote women’s equality.

WNC’s functions have now been taken into the Government Equality Office. In the past one of the main complaints about the WNC was that it was not sufficiently independent of government, but today listening to women and advice to the government comes from inside government.  The efforts of the GEO to date to consult and to strengthen women’s engagement have produced a new online interactive platform, and small groups meeting by invitation - and set to her agenda - with the Minister for Equalities, Lynne Featherstone. But collectively there is no means of delivering an independent voice to government.

In setting out the government's equalities strategy, Secretary of State Teresa May has said,  ‘Equality underpins this coalition’s guiding principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility.’ While this is not the language that understands how gender inequality causes all forms of discrimination against women, the government does have an action plan and an advisory expert group including ngos on violence against women and girls and runs an Inter-ministerial Group on Equalities.  Alas, history tells us that when gender is simply treated as one of many aspects of inequality, it tends to suffer a disappearing act. 

What we have now is a women's sector dissolving into groupings that no-one is able to see as a whole. The difference, and the current omission, lies in the inability because of the high costs, to bring the sector together from across the UK.  We lack any kind of coherent, cohesive and collective voice. And in this fragmentation, we are disempowered.

WNC was certainly imperfect, but what it provided was a powerful means, with limited resources, to bring women’s organisations together to consider problems and voice their concerns. There was a framework for analysis and understanding, and a means of arriving at a coherent and collective voice which was then taken to government. The WNC provided reactive capacity as well as more strategic and planned outputs. It was an avenue to bring to the attention of any Secretary of State or Minister an issue that affected - negatively or positively -  women’s status, empowerment  and access to their human rights. We worked on issues that ranged from the architecture of the International Criminal Court, to providing support for Iraqi women's ngos following the invasion.  And in the spaces between we worked to consult and produce Shadow reports on CEDAW and enabled partners to prepare for the annual Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) which opens today in New York.

The Women's National Commission used to form part of the official UK government delegation to UNCSW, and was tasked with providing a conduit to all UK ngos gathered in New York at the UN. Every weekday evening we were briefed by officials as to how the text- the Agreed Conclusions - was developing or stalled in negotiation.  Each morning we were provided with copies of the latest text and the nod given about areas that required lobbying of the stalling governments. It was very much a two-way process, the delegation being keen to hear our views and understand what the NGOs were up to.  This system was recognised as a model internationally, and in 2010 the White House invited WNC's last chairperson, Baroness Joyce Gould, to advise them on how best to shape the new Council for Women and Girls.  Margaret Owen, director of Widows for Peace through Democracy, reports that when she was invited to address the newly launched Indian National Mission for the Empowerment of Women (NMEW) which had adopted many of the features of the WNC in its terms of reference,  "I astonished the assembly by explaining that the WNC had been axed, we had nothing, for the moment in its place, and that this action probably breached the UK’s international obligations under the Beijing Platform for Action to establish an “institutional mechanism” to empower women. The NMEW has even adopted the WNC-promoted policy of having “gender champions” in every Ministry."

This year at the UNCSW things will be different. The Minister for Equalities, Lynne Featherstone, is attending the CSW for the first three days, and the government delegation consists of only three people. No ngos are included. 

The final irony: we with our ngo global communities and our government – Labour and Coalition alike together with the EU as a whole -  worked over several years to establish a new Gender Architecture for the UN culminating in the exhilarating launch of UNWOMEN last year. At the same time we lost our own.





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