A leading women’s human rights barrister yesterday launched a wide ranging attack on the failure of the UK to stamp out discrimination against women -during the 41 years after the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) was passed.
Margaret Owen,-from the National Council of Women founded in 1895 and which has more than 40 women’s organisations affiliated to it – criticised the government, Brexit and Liz Truss, the current women’s minister and international trade secretary for all contributing to either ignoring or downgrading women’s rights.
She was the first witness to a unique tribunal – the CEDAW People tribunal – which has been set up with the help of one of the country’s leading human rights law firms, Garden Court Chambers. The tribunal will hear evidence and then with the help of judges and leading QC’s plans to draw up a women’s bill of rights aiming to implement the convention into UK law.
The UN convention was ratified by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 but has never been implemented by the UK.
Ms Owen’s position was that women’s groups used to have a statutory right to be consulted about government legislation but all this was swept away when more wide ranging changes were introduced. She thought CEDAW could introduce new procedures restoring statutory rights for women’s groups.
” Now all we have is consultations with the Government Equalities Office.”
She said that the civil servant there was sympathetic but had already told women’s groups that the provisions of CEDAW was “unlegislatible” -saying there was already human rights legislation. Shed said this amounted to an ” oxymoron”.
She accused Liz Truss of having ” a conflict of interest ” in being both negotiating trade deals -including arms deals – with regimes – some of whom were misogynistic – while standing up for women’s rights. She attacked the recent cuts in overseas aid which she said had damaged help for women and girls-partiuclarly in health and providing contraception.
Scottish developments on legislation
Kasey McCall-Smith from Edinburgh Law School
Developments in Scotland, which is preparing to legislate to put the UN Convention into Scottish law, were explained by Dr McCall-Smith, a lecturer in Public International Law and Programme Director for the LLM in Human Rights. She is a US qualified lawyer and an adviser to the Scottish government.
She explained that Scottish interest in women’s rights had grown out of the country having a more progressive policy towards children’s rights than in England.
She said there were three ways of introducing CEDAW into Scottish law. One was to create a framework of law putting the entire convention on the statute book. The second, as had happened in South Africa, was to put it in the country’s constitution, and the third was to introduce sectional changes into individual laws. She thought the most effective was the first.
She also pointed out that the present 2010 Equalities Act failed because it was ” gender neutral ” rather than ” gender sensitive ” to women – when much of the existing discrimination affected mainly women.
She also said the current CEDAW convention- written before the introduction of the internet and social media – should not be regarded as a static situation but should be developing all the time. She said it was important it covered economic, social and cultural rights.
As a US lawyer she said a Women’s Bill of Rights should be able to strike down legislation that would become incompatible once it was law. She added that Britain leaving the EU also had created a problems because EU law – while not perfect- was more supportive of women’s rights.
Women ambassadors told to go to the ” diplomat wives room”
Jennifer Cassidy , a policy adviser, and a former UN diplomat, gave a grim picture of the way women diplomats were treated. She said that while the Foreign office always used statistics to show there were more women diplomats, they were not sent to the most important capitals in the US, France or Brussels. In some countries where women were not given equal status, some women ambassadors were told by their hosts to go to the ” diplomats wives room” until they had to point out they were the ambassador.
Wales “gender sensitive” act on domestic abuse
The most positive picture was given by Dr Rachel Minto, a politics lecturer at Cardiff university. She said that Wales already had passed new legislation on domestic abuse which was ” gender sensitive” legislation on domestic abuse recognising that most of the victims were women not men. This was in contrast to the Westminster legislation which was ” gender neutral”. She also said that women’s groups were keeping up links with the EU despite Brexit
Over 18000 trafficked people awaiting a Home Office decision about their fate
Kevin Highland, former head of the Met Police’s Human Trafficking Unit, gave a grim picture of the treatment of trafficked victims in the UK. The Home Office is currently holding some 18,000 awaiting a decision whether they can stay here. He thought CEDAW could help improve the treatment of women and girls, particularly pregnant women, who have just been offered a paltry extra £3 a week by the Home Office to help them.
He was highly critical of failures by police forces to investigate trafficking because it was complicated crossing police borders – and found investigators had treated trafficking as ” a game of tennis” passing the ball from one force to another.
He was also revealed that the” county lines ” drug dealers who used vulnerable children to carry drugs across the country also ran a ” county lines” trafficking in young girls – often for prostitution. He told the tribunal they often targeted vulnerable children in care homes, promising them a new life only to be dragged down into alcoholism, drugs and prostitution.
Northern Ireland ” years behind in women’s rights”.
A startling picture of how far women are behind in Northern Ireland in gaining their rights was highlighted by two witnesses, Rachel Powell, and Jonna Monaghan, from the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform.
Rachel Powell provided some alarming statistics showing how 30 per cent of women in Northern Ireland, earn nothing, staying at home. Many others with higher qualifications take low paid part time jobs because they have unpaid caring responsibilities.
Opposition to women’s rights from the Democratic Unionist Party and to CEDAW in particular, were highlighted by both of them. The current first minister, Paul Givan, is piloting the Severe Fetal Impairment Bill, through the Northern Ireland Assembly to restrict abortion despite the UK government in Westminster passing an anti abortion bill. The Assembly is at the moment refusing to implement the UK legislation.
There were also fears that the people in Northern Ireland would not get new rights if the EU passed further laws now the UK has left Brexit even though Northern Ireland is still in the single market.