Women and gender experts have been distinctly under-represented both in the BREXIT referendum campaign and in the ongoing negotiations for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. This is a cause for concern in an exercise which will very deeply affect British society and to a lesser extent the EU, with likely impacts on women’s rights and gender inequalities.

A legitimacy issue which could backfire

While bulk figures give an equal proportion of women and men amongst those who voted for and against Brexit in the referendum of June 2016, a sex disaggregated analysis by region and age, shows notable differences. For instance, 80% of women between the ages of 18 and 24 voted for remain, which is the highest proportion of remain voters in all categories.

Also, across the referendum campaign, research has now highlighted that women’s voices have hardly been heard and their concerns not considered. A Loughborough university study shows that men took 85% of press space across the 6 weeks campaign with 70% of the television coverage was attributed to 4 male conservative leaders and Nigel Farage.

In this context, the underrepresentation of women and gender experts as well as the speed and complex institutional and trade agenda of the negotiations carries the risk of a lack of consideration of questions which could impact on gender inequalities.

A threat on Women’s rights and gender equality in the UK and the EU

While the situation of women in the EU as a whole started to erode as a consequence of the economic crisis of 2008 with cuts in public services and the rise of poverty, the strong EU legal and policy framework for gender equality has acted as a shield from the most salient discriminations and continues to act as a driver to promote equality and fight discrimination.

In the UK the situation after BREXIT will become more difficult without the platform of the EU’s legal framework, policy initiatives and alliances. Despite the assertion by government representatives that women’s rights will be maintained, the threat that social and employment rights could be eroded in the name of competitiveness is haunting the feminist and women’s rights community.

As far as policy initiatives and alliances are concerned, actors in the field value the benchmarking capacity which has been developed over the years, thanks to Eurostat and the ESS but also the open method of coordination, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) and EU research and ESF projects. Gender equality is a field where seeing what others do and existing good (and bad) examples in different context is crucial for the advancement of national, regional and local policies for gender equality. Of immediate concern, the measurement of the impact of Brexit on gender will rely on benchmarking and common data collection.

Concerns about increasing women’s poverty

The economic downturn post Brexit which is forecasted by an increasing number of economists would have dearer consequences for women than for men as they are overwhelmingly at greater financial risk that men in case of a recession. It should be noted that this may have consequences not only on the labour market and access to good quality public services but also on the resources of women’s charities under more demand for help at a time where the democratic monitoring of policies will become increasingly important to maintain and improve women’s rights. The consequences on old, migrant and minorities women may be particularly serious.

Some suggested gender-related actions in the context of Brexit negotiations

1. Mainstream gender in the negotiations

The promotion of gender equality and elimination of discriminations between women and men is an active duty of the European Union according to article 3 of TEU and article 8 of TFEU. This process, normally referred to as gender mainstreaming, is particularly relevant for the negotiation which touch upon many fields which could directly or indirectly impact women’s rights. In this regard, a systematic gender impact analysis of the different chapters being negotiated would be a useful eye opener on issues which may have a disproportionate impact on different categories of women.

Another tool which would in parallel increase the legitimacy of the results would be to hold structured consultations with civil society organisations and academics dealing with women’s rights in the UK and the EU on issues of concern

2. No rolling back on women’s rights

Include a “no rolling back clause” on existing gender equality and social norm in all the relevant EU/UK agreements
Complete the ratification of the Istanbul convention and find ways to join forces to monitor its implementation

3. Keep networking alive

Keep gender equality bench marking instruments resourced and alive (data production, networks) to capitalize on past investment and maintain the development of common data bases and indicators

Maintain UK gender researchers and research centres within the European Research Area and research programs

Strengthen networks of gender experts within Europe (within EIGE inter alia).. and maintain resources functional links between civil society actors (European Women’s Lobby)


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