What politicians should be doing for women in 2019 (instead of arguing about Brexit)

Posted by for Life

Brexit is important – but it’s stealing the spotlight from too many vital feminist issues. Political journalist Gaby Hinsliff has some suggestions for what MPs could be focusing on instead… 

Ever get the feeling that Brexit has dragged on so long, you can barely remember what politics was like without it?

If so that’s understandable, given that it’s eclipsed everything else at Westminster for two and a half years now. But the rest of life hasn’t magically gone away just because politicians are busy elsewhere – which means the unsung cost of Brexit is arguably all the stuff that inevitably gets pushed aside because of it.

From climate change to knife crime, there are endless issues MPs could be focusing on more closely or dealing with more quickly if they weren’t lurching from one crucial Brexit vote to the next. But here are five that arguably deserve more in-depth attention than they’re getting….

Campaigners at a protest for abortion rights in Northern Ireland in February 2019  

Abortion rights for all

Every year hundreds of British women are denied a legal abortion in their home country, forced to go overseas for terminations or in some cases risking prison by buying abortion pills illegally online. And all because they happen to live in Northern Ireland, which has traditionally had stricter abortion laws than the rest of Britain. But while opinion polls now show support for relaxing the law, the process for doing so is broken.

The Northern Irish assembly is responsible for abortion law, but it hasn’t met for nearly two years after relations between the two main parties collapsed. Theresa May’s government is declining to step in and change the law over their heads, arguing that could risk damaging the Northern Irish peace process – although it’s probably not wholly irrelevant that May relies on the votes of the strongly anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party at Westminster to prop up her government and get Brexit through. How long must women wait for this stalemate to be broken? 

Activists want third-party sexual harassment laws to be reintroduced in the UK 

Sexual harassment at work

The #MeToo movement has outed some high-profile gropers in business and politics, and triggered government promises to clamp down on non-disclosure agreements (where victims are paid off on condition they don’t go public about what happened). However, campaigners also want a change in the law to protect women harassed not by colleagues, but by people they’re forced to deal with as part of their work – leery punters trying to grope their waitress, say, or the creepy client nobody wants to be left alone with.

The last Labour government drew up a legal duty on employers to tackle this kind of third party harassment, meaning bosses could be held liable if they didn’t take steps to avoid it happening again after two or more incidents were reported. But David Cameron’s government scrapped the measure, known as Section 40. Now parliament’s all party group on sexual equality wants it reinstated to show that women’s safety doesn’t come second to keeping the customers happy.

Closing the gap for black women

There’s increasing awareness of “misogynoir”, or the double whammy of prejudice black women face both in public life (think the extraordinary abuse suffered by Labour’s Diane Abbott) and in private. So it would be good to see politicians take some practical action on issues like tackling the pay gap between white employees and employees of colour. Even once things like qualifications are taken into account, black female graduates still earn 9% less than white female graduates, according to recent research from think tank the Resolution Foundation.

Ministers are now consulting on making companies reveal their ethnicity pay gap, helping shame them into action. But shouldn’t this issue be higher on everyone’s agenda?

No girls or women should be going without menstrual products in 2019 

Eradicating period poverty

It’s shocking that women in a rich western country have to stay at home because they can’t afford something as basic as tampons. But one in four girls and women in the UK have experienced so-called period poverty, according to a new survey for the Bloody Big Brunch campaign highlighting this issue – and a quarter of those have missed school or work because of it. Ministers have now set up a taskforce tackling period poverty around the world, but activists still say they’re moving too slowly; they want free menstrual products provided in all British schools and colleges.

Ironically, one argument made in favour of voting leave in the 2016 referendum was that it would mean cheaper tampons, as we’d finally be able to scrap VAT on them (EU rules mean one member state can’t scrap the tax on something unless everyone agrees). So it’s funny that male leavers who pushed that line have gone a bit quiet on period poverty since.

Christopher Chope in 2014 

Finding Sir Christopher Chope a new hobby

This 71-year-old Tory MP has single-handedly killed off new laws on everything from upskirting photos to female genital mutilation, as part of a one-man war on so-called private members’ bills (laws pushed forward by individual MPs, not ministers).

Shake up the process to make it harder for one lone MP to kill a bill, however, and you’d free backbenchers to tackle more of the small but life-changing issues that ministers bogged down in Brexit can easily overlook. Now that’s what we call progress. 

Images: Getty Images 

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Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff is a political commentator and the former chief political correspondent at The Observer.

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