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Boris Johnson’s silence on women’s rights speaks volumes about his commitment to equality

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Christobel Hastings
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Boris Johnson has been elected the new Conservative leader and succeeded Theresa May as the next UK prime minister. But while he’s been vocal about securing Brexit, tax cuts, and the Irish backstop, he has all too often remained silent on important issues affecting women.

After a month-long leadership contest, Boris Johnson has been elected the leader of the Conservatives, and, as such, has succeeded Theresa May as the new UK prime minister. 

In his victory speech, Mr Johnson promised he would “deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn”. And, so far, much of the conversation around Johnson’s leadership has focused on leaving the EU, “do or die” on 31 October, regardless of whether a satisfactory deal can be reached.

But amidst Johnson’s outspoken pledges around EU negotiations, tax cuts for the rich, and the Irish backstop to maintain a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, women’s issues have all but fallen by the wayside. And although Johnson emphatically declared that he is “absolutely” a feminist at the final hustings of the leadership campaign, and has pledged to create a more diverse cabinet, his inconsistent voting history on women’s rights doesn’t augur well for a supposedly progressive government.

Granted, we won’t know anything about Johnson’s policies until a new government has been formed. But we can look to the the former foreign secretary and ex-London mayor’s voting record to assess how women’s issues might shape up under his leadership. From abortion rights to the gender pay gap, here’s everything you need to know.

Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures after giving a speech outside 10 Downing Street

Abortion

Abortion rights have been at the forefront of conversation recently, in the wake of parliament voting to lift the ban on abortion and make equal marriage law in Northern Ireland. It was a momentous vote for equality, but intriguingly, Johnson abstained on both votes

In fact, the new PM hasn’t voted on abortion rights in Westminster since 2007. Not only did he abstain from the vote on Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances other than when a woman’s life is at risk, but he abstained from a vote on introducing independent abortion counselling. 

The reasons for Johnson’s continued abstention on votes of fundamental reproductive justice are open to question, because he’s been pretty much silent on the issue. Earlier in the month, however, when asked about Northern Ireland’s push for legalising abortion rights, he said: “I think it’s a matter for the people of Northern Ireland and one of the most important reasons for getting the Stormont government back up and running.”

At present, it remains unclear why Johnson has declined to vote on key abortion issues and engage in public debate. However, as the basic reproductive freedoms of women are reversed by the US administration and across the world, Johnson will need to take a clear stance soon if he is to prove that he is committed to protecting abortion rights.

Tampon tax

The tampon tax is all the revenue earned from the VAT charge applied to the sale of tampons and other sanitary protection products, which in the UK, are bewilderingly classed as luxury, non-essential products. Though these products are subject to a reduced charge of 5%, there’s a debate over why women have it pay it in the first instance, considering other items like postage stamps and bike helmets are completely exempt from VAT. And with period poverty on the rise, eliminating the tampon tax couldn’t come sooner.

In 2015, the issue came to a head with The Finance Bill amendment, which looked to cut the tax levied on sanitary products. Despite prominent campaigns, the bill, which would have prompted negotiations with the EU for a reduction in the VAT rate, was rejected in a Commons vote by 305 to 287 votes. And Johnson was one of the 305 MPs who voted against the amendment. 

If the UK does leave the EU in October, as Johnson has pledged to deliver, an end to the tampon tax could be in sight, as the tax is a European policy. That being said, taking a stance on the issue, or engaging in debate over how period poverty disproportionally impacts low income women for that matter, would go a long way in proving that Johnson is committed towards bettering the lives of women across the UK.

New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Boris Johnson arrives at the Conservative party headquarters in central London

The gender pay gap

Earlier in the year, analysis from the BBC found that 78% of the UK’s biggest employers reported a pay gap in favour of men, while across 45% of firms, the pay gap had actually increased in favour of men. At present, the gender pay gap stands at 9.6%.

So long as men are paid significantly more in their average hourly earnings than women, gender equality needs to be a top priority for our lawmakers. But Johnson voted against an assessment of the impact of government policies on women, against publishing a gender equality strategy, as well as against demanding annual reports on the gender pay gap and making recommendations to close it.

The only time Johnson explicitly addressed the gender pay gap was during his time as London Mayor, when he suggested that the persistence of the inequality was down to immigration. During Mayor’s Question Time, Johnson responded to a report showing that almost a quarter of women working in London earn less than the living wage, arguing that the disparity was a result of “unrestricted access to the market of labourers who are willing to work for very low wages”.

“When you have net migration running at hundreds of thousands more than you predicted, or than social services are able to cope with, that will have a big downward pressure on wages at the bottom end of the spectrum,” he continued. 

Violence against women

From domestic violence and sexual harassment, to rape and FGM, violence against women in the UK is on the rise. According to the Office for National Statistics, two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales, while in the year ending March 2016, 1.2 million women reported experiences of domestic abuse in England and Wales, a figure that Refuge claims is grossly underestimated. 

When it comes to eliminating violence against women, Johnson did make progress during his tenure as London Mayor. In 2016, he announced the creation of the £5 million Pan-London Domestic Violence Service to help support victims’ recovery and assist them in navigating the criminal justice system.

At the same time though, he cut the role of Women’s Adviser at City Hall, as well as five positions and £90,000 in funding from the London Domestic Violence Strategy Team.

It’s now been a decade since Johnson outlined his strategy, The Way Forward - A Call for Action to End Violence Against Women, aimed at eradicating violence against women in the capital, when he pledged to improve support services for victims of domestic abuse. Under his leadership as prime minister, it remains to be seen whether Johnson will continue to honour his promises to end violence against women. 

Brexit campaigner and former London mayor Boris Johnson addresses a press conference in central London 

Women in the workplace

Last month, Johnson responded to a letter from the Conservative Women in Parliament Group (CWIPG) stating “where there are barriers - be they in pay, discrimination, against women on maternity leave, or the hidden inequalities of the health system - my government will call them out and do something about them”. But without a clear, direct line on exactly how these inequalities could be realised, his words ring as empty rhetoric. 

And whilst some might assume that assessing the impact of government policies of women might be a top priority for a new leader reforming his government, Johnson has, in the past, voted against an assessment of the impact of government policies on women. 

Despite reports that Johnson will use his leadership to increase the number of women in full cabinet positions and boost the representation of ethnic minorities, and the fact that he pledged a 50% target for Conservative candidates across all levels of the party, the advancement of women amounts to more than simply assembling a more representative cabinet. 

Johnson must now speak out unequivocally in support of women, and put solid policy commitments in place to make a tangible difference to their lives. 

Images: Getty