The CEDAW Committee Holds an Uncomfortable Mirror to the UK
On July 26th, 2013 the CEDAW Committee released concluding observations on the UK’s compliance with CEDAW. The UK is obligated to publicize the findings of the Committee, although the Concluding Observations have received very little media attention. In the Seventh Concluding Observation, the Committee demonstrates a keen understanding of the major governmental policies in the UK and their impact on gender equality in the country.
The need for a public sector equality duty, the effects of the legal aid cuts and general measures of austerity have all been canvassed in many forums but the Committee is unique in discussing these legal developments in the UK from a gender equality perspective. For example, with regards to the public sector equality duty (PSED), the Committee recommends that the UK “ensure the gender equality component of the [PSED] is properly prescribed for public authorities…[and] bring into force the provision of the Equality Act relating to…the introduction of a new public sector duty on socio-economic inequality.” The Committee is thus implicitly drawing the connection between positive duties, socio-economic rights and gender equality. In this way, the Committee opens up an interesting new line of argument: a commitment to gender equality could form the basis for requiring the Conservative government to bring the PSED into force.
The Committee also notes that austerity measures and budgetary cuts in the public sector have disproportionately affected women and urges the UK to balance the impact of austerity and review policies which may undermine the provision of specialised women’s services. With these recommendations the Committee is demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of substantive equality. Due to the continuing cycles of discrimination—unequal and low paid jobs, concentration in part-time work and the responsibility for unpaid care-giving—women rely more on publically funded services. Therefore, cuts to these services while seemingly gender neutral specifically entrench women’s disadvantaged positions in society. The Committee has rightly highlighted these missing links to the UK government.
The Committee also offers an insightful gender equality analysis of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, 2012. The Committee is concerned about the requirement of proof of domestic violence and a proposed residency requirement. The concern is that this “will push women, particularly ethnic minority women, into informal community arbitration systems” which will not conform to CEDAW standards. However, the Committee falls short of recommending that the UK repeal this legislation. Instead it only recommends that the government ensure women have access to justice and that it monitors the cuts for their impact on gender equality.
The Concluding Observations also address the traditional areas of gender discrimination and inequality. The Committee calls for temporary special measures to improve the representation of women, particularly black, ethnic minority women and women with disabilities, in Parliament, the judiciary, and private companies. In education, the Committee recommends mandatory sex education, programmes and policies to deal with bullying, measures to increase girls’ participation in science, math, engineering and technology. The UK is called to intensify efforts to encourage men to take a more active role in parenting, to eliminate occupational segregation and narrow the gender pay gap and to provide affordable child care options.
There are several aspects where the Committee demonstrates that it is a strong advocate for women’s overall development. Thus, its attention spans from the issue of female genital mutilation in the UK; to the stereotypical images and objectification of women in the media. It further assess how the Universal Credit system of welfare benefits, which is only paid to a single member of the family, can undermine women’s agency, particularly if she is in an abusive relationship. Issues pertaining to women of different identities—race, ethnicity, age, women in prison and migrants, are also specifically addressed.
While the UK has made some advances in gender equality over the past four years, there is still much work to be done. The Committee has directed the attention of the UK government to the advances that are yet to be made in women’s empowerment. The Committee’s comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the issues in the UK will serve a great deal in advocating for gender equality in every front of the governmental policy.
Meghan Campbell is a Dphil Candidate at the University of Oxford and Administrator of the OxHRH