How Would a Brexit Affect the Rights of Women in the UK?

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer  

(Photo Credit)

Article 8 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that “in all its activities, the Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equality, between men and women.”

Gender equality is indeed one of the founding principles of the EU which has been recognised as a fundamental right in EU law. The Union has always been a ‘friend to women’ in the UK, pushing the otherwise sceptical British politicians to go further on equal pay and maternity rights.

The Labour MP Harriet Harman, for instance, suggests that joining the Union has played a key role in forcing through a series of reforms on issues directly affecting women that previously faced constant opposition in Britain: 

“Time off to go to an antenatal appointment was treated as if women were going off to get their nails done. We were totally opposed, totally patronised, totally condescended and actually vilified, really… We are not in a state of nirvana on women’s rights at any stretch of the imagination. With women it is two steps forward, one step back. We have to be careful [Brexit] isn’t a major step back… Europe was an incredible strength to our elbow, because someone was agreeing with us. Because we couldn’t just be brushed aside.”

In the years after the UK joined the European Union in 1973, working women gained a lot from this strong underpinning to their rights. The National Trade Union Centre in the UK, TUC, recently published a report outlining 20 key gains for working women in the UK which happened thanks to the country’s EU membership.

The most significant of these include the fact that EU law expanded the right to equal pay, strengthened the protection from sex discrimination and improved remedies and access to justice for women who have been unfairly treated. It also increased the protection for pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, encouraged men to play a greater role in family life and developed a new set of rights helping women balance work with care.

It was again EU law that benefited the many women who work part-time or on a temporary basis by improving their pay and conditions and giving them access to rights at the workplace that they were previously disqualified from.

We have to admit that it is highly unlikely that any UK government to come would push for removing all the existing equality rights and, of course, they would not magically disappear overnight. However, if the UK votes for a Brexit, they will still be at risk of being eroded over time, especially considering that the same people leading the campaign on Brexit are the ones directly attacking the directives underpinning these rights and are threatening to repeal them.

Not being a Member State would mean that the country would not be obliged to conform to any new EU laws setting standards for improving working women’s rights in future, an area which has been a priority of the Union for decades. This could also significantly slow down the fight for equality which, even in a country like the UK, is far from being a reality.

Thus, is voting to leave really worth the risk of impeding the fight for women’s rights?