EDF Gendering Brexit Blog series: If Brexit Cannot be Reversed, What Should be Done to Protect Women’s Rights?

‘Women in the UK 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’, writes Barbara Helfferich in the first of our Gender and Brexit blog series.

The drama over how much Parliament will have to say about the final deal is just one example of the haphazard way in which the UK is preparing for the exit from the EU. Everything around Brexit seems to have gone wrong. One could call it irresponsible, short-sighted, even suicidal, mainly testosterone driven, but above all; undemocratic.

Yes, it is true that a slight majority voted for Brexit. But the exercise of going to the voting booth and marking a box does not make it a democratic process by a long shot. People were never adequately informed about what economic impact to expect from Brexit. What’s more, women in the UK 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 as this move will deeply affect British society, with likely impacts on women’s rights and their economic independence.

A lack of women’s voices: A legitimacy issue that could backfire

While bulk figures show that 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 to 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 six weeks campaign with 70% of the television coverage attributed to four male conservative leaders and Nigel Farage.

In this context, the under-representation of women and gender experts, as well as the speed and complex institutional and trade agenda of the negotiations, carries the risk of neglecting to consider questions that could impact on gender inequalities.

A threat for women’s rights

While the situation of women in the EU started to erode because 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 instances of discrimination. And it 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.

Concerns about increasing women’s poverty

The economic downturn post-Brexit which is forecast by an increasing number of economists would have costly consequences for women as in the case of a recession, they are overwhelmingly at greater financial risk that men. This carries consequences not only for the labour market and access to good quality public services, but also for women’s charities, whose resources will be in greater demand at a time where the democratic monitoring of policies will become increasingly important to maintain and improve women’s rights. The consequences on older, migrant and minority group women may be particularly serious.

If Brexit cannot be reversed, what should be done to protect women’s rights?

  • Ensure that gender concerns are taken up in all negotiations.

Specifically, there should be a systematic gender impact analysis of the different issues being negotiated/completed. This would be a useful eye-opener for issues which may have a disproportionate impact on women in all walks of life.

  • No rolling back on women’s rights

In practice this should mean including a “no rolling back clause” on existing gender equality and social norms in all the relevant EU/UK agreements.

This would mean that women in the UK can enjoy the international protection against gender-based violence granted under the agreement.

It remains of the utmost importance to ensure there are structured consultations with civil society organisations and academics dealing with women’s rights in the UK. Women’s organisations in the UK have been aware of the challenge and are pushing hard, while women’s organisations on the Continent have been reaching out to support their struggle.

As I write from the European bubble also known as Brussels,  I stand with all women in the UK who demand a seat at the Brexit negotiation table.

The views expressed in this blog series may not necessarily reflect EDF’s official positions.

Barbara Helfferich was the first Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby and is the co-founder of Gender 5 plus; the first European feminist think tank.  She recently advised the European Trade Union Confederation on work, life and balance policies.


If you would like to contribute to our Gender and Brexit Blog series, get in touch at: info@equallyours.org.uk.


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Gendering Brexit Blog

We've launched a Gendering Brexit blog series, where we invite experts and campaigners to write on the gendered impact of Brexit from a range of perspectives If you would like to contribute to the series, get in touch and email us at info@equallyours.org.uk