As a signatory to the ‘international bill of women’s rights’, the UK is supposed to safeguard the rights of women. But a new report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) suggests there’s more to be done.
The EHRC is the UK’s human rights watchdog and works to promote equality and diversity. Recently, it produced a report on how the UK is implementing CEDAW – the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
The report indicates shortcomings in nearly every area of society, from political representation to working conditions. We look at the issues raised in the report and ask what needs to change.
What is CEDAW and Why Does it Matter?
The UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international bill of rights for women. It has been formally agreed to by nearly every country in the world. The UK ratified the treaty in 1986 (with certain reservations), which means it is committed to taking steps to end all forms of gender-based intolerance.
All signatories to CEDAW must present a report on how their country has been working to implement the convention. The first progress report is required within a year of signing, with subsequent reports due every four years. The UK is currently going through its eighth reporting cycle for CEDAW.
This cycle began when the UK Government’s progress report for the UN was published in December 2017. The UN Committee then received ‘shadow reports’ from NGOs and human rights institutions like the EHRC providing them with the opportunity to highlight issues not covered by the government report.
Let’s Start With the Good News
The EHRC’s report covers 2013 to 2017, and acknowledges the number of positive steps forward during that time. Good progress includes:
- criminalising forced marriage;
- introducing the Modern Slavery Act;
- introducing shared parental leave;
- bringing in tougher gender pay gap regulations;
- committing to establishing mandatory, age-appropriate relationships and sex education.
However, the report also highlights a range of issues where insufficient progress has been made.
Participation in Politics, Civic Life, and Work
Women’s representation in public life has been persistently low. Women make up 32 percent of the House of Commons, 43 percent of the National Assembly for Wales, and 36 percent of the Scottish Parliament. Women’s representation in local councils is even worse: 32 percent in England, 26 percent in Wales and 24 percent in Scotland.
The EHRC report notes that “poor public perceptions of politics and the intimidation of MPs are considered major barriers to women’s enjoyment of the right to participate in political and public life.”
Just and fair conditions at work also continue to be an issue. The overall employment rate for women in the UK is 71 percent, compared with 79.8 percent for men. Women are also more likely to be in lower paid, part-time and insecure jobs. In June 2018, women held only 29 percent of directorships in FTSE 100 companies (the 100 largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange).
The high cost of childcare can also be prohibitive to finding work. Analysis by the Trade Union Congress revealed that while real wages fell in England between 2008 and 2016, childcare costs rose by 48 percent. EHRC research into pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace found that 11 percent of mothers reported that they were forced to leave their job – the equivalent of 54,000 women every year.
Women are more likely than men to experience particular forms of violence, such as sexual violence, domestic violence and so-called ‘honour-based’ violence. While it’s important to remember that men can also be targeted, women are five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault. In December 2017, the police recorded a 25 percent increase in reported sexual offences in England and Wales that year.
The EHRC report also draws attention to issues surrounding human trafficking and modern slavery. The Modern Slavery Act came into force in 2015, unifying and simplifying previous legislation, stipulating increased penalties for human trafficking offences and strengthening protections.
However, the report highlights a number of shortfalls in the Act, such as gaps in the definition of trafficking offences and the absence of an explicit legal duty to provide victims with support. It also points to inadequate protections for overseas domestic workers – the majority of whom are female.
Detention and Asylum
Civil society organisations have called upon the UK Government to consider the distinct requirements of women in prisons, and the need to reduce the reliance on custodial sentences. The report notes that the UK is the only European state without a maximum time limit for immigration detention. Most women are held at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, where there have been allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behaviour perpetrated by staff.
The Immigration Act 2016 introduced time limits for how long pregnant women may be detained. It also reinforced that they should only be detained in exceptional circumstances. Despite this, pregnant women continue to be detained.
Health and Education
Women from different backgrounds have disparate health outcomes and difficulties in accessing health services. For example, the probability of Black African women being detained under the Mental Health Act is more than seven times greater than White British women. The report also notes that “the mental health of young women and girls in both England and Wales has deteriorated over recent years.”
Although girls continue to perform better in education than boys, this doesn’t extend into the workplace – partly due to bias in subject choices. The EHRC report notes that bullying and harassment in schools is a serious concern. A survey of girls and young women aged thirteen to twenty-one found that nearly a fifth had experienced unwanted touching at school or college.
What Happens Next?
The UN CEDAW Committee will examine the UK Government’s report and the shadow reports and make recommendations for action known as the ‘concluding observations’. The next set are expected in March 2019. Until then, the UK has some changes to make to better protect women’s rights.