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Deal or No Deal Brexit will be bad for women

Jenna Norman, feminist activist and campaigner for Women for a People’s Vote, writes of the economic impact of Brexit on women.

Jenna Norman

This week parliament votes once again on the future of Brexit. Theresa May takes her deal back to parliament to be voted on again despite refusing to afford the public the same courtesy. In and amongst all these parliamentary games, Westminster is losing sight of what is truly at stake, not least for women. Back in 2016, 80% of women aged 18-24 voted to stay in the European Union. When we look at the options on the table almost 3 years later, it’s clear to see why:

May’s deal

The Withdrawal Agreement  is accompanied by an all-important Political Declaration which is said to be the bare bones of the Withdrawal Treaty. The Political Declaration is at best vague and at worst absent on the subject of rights for workers, women, LGBT+ people and ethnic minorities. The EU has a long history of encouraging the UK to implement important anti-discrimination legislation including on equal pay, part-time workers’ rights, shared parental leave and anti-discrimination laws. These have been used to improve employment standards, propel gender equality and redistribute the gendered division of labour as well as making it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity, race or sexual orientation.

The Political Declaration makes no mention of women, gender equality or people-based discrimination. It therefore leaves these hard-earned rights at the whim of future governments. Without a commitment to gender equality in the Political Declaration, there would be no legal reason for the UK to keep in step with the EU on women’s rights.

All this being said, it’s worth labouring that the Political Declaration also remains legally non-binding. But if it is a sign of what’s to come, it should be of great concern to women’s rights advocates. We are embarking on years of wrangling over our hard-earned rights. May’s commitment to workers rights, human rights, women’s rights and the rights of minorities can be heard only in its silence.

No deal

With deadlock in Brussels and Westminster, a deal is far from guaranteed. If the UK crashes out of EU without a deal the ramifications for women’s rights, services, jobs and incomes would be catastrophic. Every single economic analysis of no deal predicts serious economic downfall as investment ceases, inflation soars and exports become more expensive. If we learnt anything from almost 10 years of austerity it’s that when public money’s tight, it’s women and particularly ethnic minority women who suffer most.

Cuts have already severely damaged the services that keep women safe. These services simply cannot take any more cuts and being severed from EU funding will hamper services even further. Between 2014 and 2020 the EU pledged £9.13 billion in Structural Funds to the UK, including to support women’s services. The Shared Prosperity Fund designed to replace the European Structural Funds misses the mark by £730 million.

Estimates suggest that women have shouldered 86% of austerity cuts due to the endurance of the gendered division of labour. It is women who have to leave paid work to fill the care gap; it is women who are over represented in precarious and low paid employment, retail, care and the public sector – all sectors at high risk in a no deal scenario; – and it is women who are often responsible for managing household budgets. The price of butter has gone up 32%  since 2016, yet wage growth does not reflect this – this is not sustainable.

And it is not just the economy that will put women in danger. The deal is bad on rights, but without a single political or legal commitment to anti-discrimination legislations, the risk of backsliding on gender equality is high. Particularly in a ‘race to the bottom’ scramble to secure global trade deals – it could be women and workers who pay the price. We are also closing the door on progress to redistribute the care burden and end violence against women: the EU is currently working on a paid carers directive as well as pressuring member states to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Why would we turn away now?

An end to Freedom of Movement will also impact women: 7,000 European nurses and midwives have left the UK since 2016 and without citizens’ rights or freedom of movement, why would they stay? Staff shortages in the care sector will burden women and particularly ethnic minority women most:The Fawcett Society cites that women are four times more likely to leave the paid workplace to care for dependents. It will be women who pick up the pieces of a care sector in crisis.

There is another option 

Deal or no deal, that’s the question on everybody’s lips right now. But for women and other marginalised groups, this is like choosing between the frying pan or the fire. Neither provide sufficient assurance that the United Kingdom will continue to priorities economic equality, gender justice or an end to race and sexuality-based discrimination.

Both options leave our hard-earned rights at the whim of future governments and gamble with the services that keep women and LGBT+ people safe. There is another option. You wouldn’t buy a house with checking the contract. Now that we know the terms of Brexit the British public should have the final say. A People’s Vote is the only way to have our voices heard now that we know the real impact Brexit will have on women.

Read the Women’s Budget Group full report ‘Exploring the Economic Impact of Brexit on women’ here.

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