Since the British government began implementing its swingeing austerity measures, at least £13.2 billion ($21 billion) has been taken from women’s incomes through cuts to benefits and tax credits – more than twice as much as has been taken from men. Women’s unemployment currently stands at 1.13 million, the highest it has been for 25 years, and because nearly 40 per cent of women’s jobs nationally are within the public sector, women have been hardest hit by government job cuts. The cuts to public services are also impacting disproportionately on women as the key users of such services both for themselves and for their families.
As the impact of the cuts spreads, women’s organizations are seeing a sharp increase in the need for those services, such as violence against women services, whose funding is being slashed. There have also been renewed attacks on women’s reproductive and maternal rights, battles which women thought were won long ago. Alongside the damage being done by the austerity measures, the country seems to be witnessing an ideological patriarchal attack on women – turning back the clock on hard-won rights and freedoms.
As public services are cut or withdrawn, women are expected to ‘fill the gaps’, despite the fact that they already do the bulk of caring and domestic work in the home as well as volunteering and caring work within the community.
In this climate, women’s organizations are increasingly looking to international bodies for support in upholding women’s rights in Britain. Cases may be taken to the European Court of Human Rights, or the CEDAW Optional Protocol used when domestic systems do not meet women’s needs.
On 24 May, the British government will be examined on its overall human rights record as part of its Universal Periodic Review; in 2013 the UN CEDAW Committee will examine the government on its record on women’s rights. These international human rights instruments are key mechanisms to hold states to account and ensure that they are living up to their obligations under international human rights standards.
What are they likely to find?
Although Britain has a raft of laws covering gender equality, women are running out of domestic remedies to ensure that their rights are upheld. Laws are not implemented and there is no redress for violations of equalities legislation.
Of course, this attack on women’s rights is not unique to Britain. It is therefore vital that the international instruments, which the majority of states across the world have signed up to, are enforced and implemented and that our governments are not able to use ‘austerity’ as an excuse for bypassing their obligations. Human rights are indivisible, core principles about how we should be treated and how we should treat others, and they must not be eroded. If we can no longer see the value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are risking returning to the kind of world that led to its creation in the first place.
UPDATE, 1 June 2012
The UPR examination of the UK Government on 24 May included some very pertinent and specific questions on what they were doing to address women’s rights, and human rights and equality in general, from a broad range of countries. The impact of the austerity measures on human rights was also raised. See the Women’s Resource Centre blog for more information.
Charlotte Gage works for the Women’s Resource Centre.