Equality and Women’s Human Rights

Equality and Women’s Human Rights

Women’s rights, including the right to live free from discrimination, are basic human rights which governments have a duty to protect, respect and fulfil. Women’s human rights, including the right to equality, must be enshrined in law and respected in practice if women are to play a full and equal part in all aspects of society.

There are a number of UK, European and International laws that set out and seek to protect, and in some cases, advance women rights.

Three of the key ones are the:

  • UK Equality Act 2010
  • UK Human Rights 1988
  • UN Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

In each case Fawcett and others have concerns about threats to reduce protections or inadequate implementation of those we do have.

Part implementation and review of key gender protections in The Equality Act 2010

2010 saw a new Equality Act that aimed to bring together a range of previously separate pieces of legislation into a single act that would protect the rights of individuals, and advance equality of opportunity for all. This improved protection for women in a number of ways including:

  •  Allowing for Positive Action in recruitment and promotion, which gives greater scope to address deficits in the workforce
  •  Strengthening the powers of employment tribunals
  •  Strengthening the protection for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers
  •  Banning discrimination in private members’ clubs

It also introduced the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) which requires all public bodies, including government to “pay regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination against women and to advance women’s equality of opportunity. In addition the Act contained a provision – Section 78 – that gives government the power to require big employers to measure whether they are paying women and men equally. However the government has recently announced a review of the PSED even though it has only been in place just over 2 years. In addition government has decided to implement Section 78, which would give it greater powers to mandate employer action on equal pay if it chose.

Fawcett is concerned that the review of the PSED results in the weakening of an important tool to get policy makers to think about how they could tackle women’s inequality. Fawcett is also concerned that in not implementing Section 78, the government is limiting important potential to tackle the gender pay gap.

We also think that the association of equality law with “Red Tape” coming from some politicians is inaccurate, short sighted and deeply unhelpful when greater equality strengthens our economy and society for all.

 Threats to the Human Rights Act 1988

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) places a duty on government, the courts and all other public bodies to respect the human rights of both women and men in everything they do. It provides a vital safeguard for women’s rights. It has been used by women and their advocates inside and outside the courtroom to challenge unfair decisions to remove children from their mothers, get greater protection for domestic violence victims, to uphold the dignity of older women living in care homes and to safeguard vulnerable asylum seeking women with little other protection and respect for their rights. Under human rights law, public bodies have a positive duty to step in when they become aware of a potential breach of a woman’s human rights.

However there has been both media and political criticism of the Human Rights Act with some proposing that it be scrapped. Fawcett believes that this would represent a major backwards step in the level of human rights protection that women and others in the UK currently have.

Inadequate UK implementation and progress on CEDAW

Government has a range of obligations and duties under the UN Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women – CEDAW. Currently, 185 countries – over 90% of the members of the United Nations – are party to CEDAW. CEDAW is solely concerned with the position of women and outlines a comprehensive set of rights for women in all fields. Among other things it covers discrimination (article 1), sex role stereotyping (article 5), political and public life (article 7), education (article 10), Health (article 12) and marriage and family life (article 16). It is the only treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces in shaping gender roles. As the UK has ratified the treaty, it is legally bound to put its provisions into practice. The UK must submit a national report, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their obligations under CEDAW.

The government submitted it most recent report on the UK’s progress under CEDAW to the UN in June 2011 and was examined on this by the CEDAW Committee (the examining body) at the UN in Geneva in July 2013. In its outgoing report, the CEDAW Committee makes recommendations for improvements in the situation of women across a wide range of areas. These include: abortion rights, legal aid funding, funding for violence against women services, the sexual objectification of women in the media, hate crimes against BME women, the impact of austerity on women, and women in prison amongst many other issues. The UN also reissued its call for the UK to develop an overarching national strategy to implement the rights set out in the Convention.

Find out more about CEDAW

What could make a difference?

Implementation of the recommendations of the UN CEDAW Committee from the 2013 examination, including the development of an overarching national strategy to implement the rights set out in the Convention.

What is Fawcett doing?

Fawcett sits on a CEDAW Working Group of women’s sector NGOs. This group engages extensively in the CEDAW process, through submitting both written and oral evidence to the CEDAW Committee on how the UK is performing and on any remaining areas of inequality for women. At the most recent examination in July 2013 we raised specific concerns about women’s access to power and economic and social rights in times of austerity.

Fawcett’s What About Women? Campaign aims to increase the status given to and action on women’s equality and rights in policy making.

There are a number of other organisations with whom we work or who we support who are working to strengthen the UK’s equality and human rights protections. These include:

The Equality And Human Rights Commission

The Equality and Diversity Forum (and its member organisations)

Rights of Women

Gender neutral language

Fawcett believes that discrimination in language should never occur in any official or legal document unless there is a justifiable (and stated) reason for it. The PDF below ‘Gender-neutral language in statutory, official and legal documents’ first explains how the language used in the past made women invisible (Historical Background), and goes on to provide some suggestions for best practice that will improve things in the future (Guidelines for Implementation).

We invite constructive criticism, and of course, additions to our list of suggestions would be very welcome.