By Alexandra DeMatos
Communications Intern – Summer 2016
People from around the world watched as the United Kingdom experienced its most momentous week in decades. After a nerve-wracking referendum vote, Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU) by a very slim margin – 51.9 percent by 48.1 percent. London residents voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. This vote meant much more to the people of Britain than a typical election because voting to leave the European Union is something that no country has ever done. To add more fuel to the fire, not only did Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron resign and international markets took a harsh blow, but also both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, which many fear will lead to an even more historic event – the fall of Great Britain. These are the concerns that are currently dominating international media, leaving many other extremely important issues, such as the rights of women, minorities and refugees, swept under the rug.
The European Union began after World War II in order to increase security between its members states both economically and politically. The EU consists of 28 members with many more eager to join and it holds a great amount of influence over Europe. Many rights for women and minorities, which were brought to Britain through the EU, were not up for debate during the referendum period.
Feminist Caroline Criado-Perez compiled a list of rights given to women in England through the joining of the EU, “EU referendum: For any woman who values workplace equality, there’s only one way to vote,” including: equal pay for work of equal value, paid maternity leave, making it illegal to dismiss women due to pregnancy and ending the practice of “treating part-time workers as less valuable than full-time workers.” These were all rights that were NOT enforced in England until the intervention of the EU. The worry is now that by leaving the EU, there is no saying what will happen to these advancements and rights of women.
Here’s an example; in 1970 the United Kingdom passed the Equal Pay Act, which was supposed to be a leap towards ending wage discrimination. The issue however, was that it only guaranteed equal pay for women who were doing the exact same work as a man. The intervention of the European Commission in 1982 forced the United Kingdom to comply with Article 119 of The Treaty of Rome – equal pay for work of equal value. Criado-Perez compared male street cleaners and women who clean offices as an example of equal pay for equal work. Now the fate of this important policy is unknown.
As for the rights of minorities and refugees, the EU, under the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), says that refugees are guaranteed protection: “Under CEAS, international protection is granted to those migrants who qualify as refugees due to a well-founded fear of persecution. Subsidiary protection status is granted to those who would face a real risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his/her country of origin.” According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, just about half of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees are women – 25.6 percent of whom are extremely young, ranging from infants to 17 years old and 24.2 percent are aged 18 to over 60. Since 1993 a majority of migrants to the United Kingdom have been women, most of which were attempting to escape terrible, often violent conditions from their home country, and considered the United Kingdom a safe space.
Perhaps it may seem unlikely that there would be a backwards shift in the realm of women’s rights or the rights of minorities or refugees, but if the #Leave campaign, which was heavily fueled by a hatred and fear of immigrants and minorities, was able to win the vote then perhaps a backwards shift does not seem so unlikely after all. Since the referendum vote on Thursday, June 23 there has been more than 100 incidents of hate crimes or racial abuses. There has been an outpour on social media of instances of harassment, a great deal of which are being reported by Muslim women. One tweet, by @heavencrawley, reads:
Women in Great Britain are unsure of what is to come in the years following the referendum vote. Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, wrote, “Britain is leaving the EU and I would like to know what that means for women. For the cost of my childcare, for the likelihood of closing the pay gap and for the chances of this country ever ratifying the pan-European Istanbul Convention to end violence against women and girls.”
Her thoughts sum up the worries and questions of many.