Reasons to be cheerful on International Women's Day

by Hayley Willingale, treaty monitoring

Published: 08 Mar 2018

Last month, the nation marked the centenary of some women being granted the right to vote. It was an uplifting moment, celebrating both the words and deeds of those suffragettes and suffragists who secured that historic victory, and a time to reflect on how far we’ve travelled since.

It was also a much-needed shot of inspiration. Working in the women’s rights sector can be really hard going sometimes. Despite 100 years of progress, I’m sure I can’t be the only one who feels daunted by the scale of the challenges that remain.

Almost every day there’s another shocking-but-not-surprising news headline reminding us of the daily discrimination, misogyny and violence women face. But I suppose those news headlines also tell us something else: that society as a whole, and women in particular, seem less and less willing to put up with inequality. The drive and determination of the people I work with at the Equality and Human Rights Commission is testament to that.

We’re working to ensure that gender stereotypes and sexism are tackled from an early age, before they become a set of rigid assumptions. We’re calling for all children to receive an education grounded in equality and human rights, and for compulsory teaching on healthy relationships, sex and consent, so that they are equipped with the knowledge they need to stay safe and prepare for life beyond the classroom.

From education to employment, our work in recent months has focussed on ensuring women are treated fairly in the workplace. Our research into the discrimination many pregnant women and new mothers face from their employers has started a national conversation about how to ensure we don’t penalise women for choosing to have a job and a family. This is something that’s core to our work in addressing the gender pay gap too, which remains unacceptably high at 18.4%.

For some girls a life in politics may beckon. The UK Parliament might be ‘the most diverse yet’ with 32% female MPs, but this ranks the UK just 47th in gender representation globally. We want new rules that require political parties to declare the diversity of their candidates, so they can strive to be more representative of society as a whole.

For the most marginalised women and girls, however, the corridors of Westminster must seem a baffling place. Faced with what can be a confusing set of regulations, the Commission is working to ensure that women asylum seekers, including those who are pregnant, understand their right to healthcare and feel empowered to access it. An array of cuts and changes to the welfare system since 2010 has seen women lose significantly more income than men. In the year ahead we will continue to put pressure on the UK Government to address these serious concerns. 

The Commission will be raising all these issues – and many more – in an upcoming report that will be our biggest ever assessment of women’s rights. It will feed into a major United Nations review into the UK’s record on gender equality, happening over the course of the next year. We will be working with civil society organisations and women’s rights activists to tell the UK and devolved governments that the job is not done yet.  

The women fighting for equality in 1918 knew this. When women first got the vote it was only for those with property and over the age of 30. It was another 10 years before it was won on an equal basis with men. They knew that progress is the ever-evolving process of taking the next step. And actually that’s a good reason to be cheerful.

If you’d like to find out more about the Commission’s work on women’s rights, please email Hayley Richardson.

Our upcoming report assessing women's rights will be published in July 2018 and forms part of our work to monitor the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women