Women's rights are human rights: Six ways @ScotGov can go 'further, faster' in tackling gender inequality

Human rights report to UN says more action is needed on women’s rights in Scotland

A NEW report by the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has called on the Scottish and UK governments to take action to protect women’s economic, social and political rights.

Presented to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on Monday (23 July), the report makes 27 recommendations intended to address the impact on women of austerity, gender-based violence, and mental health, as well as continuing disparities in employment opportunities and public representation. 

SHRC chair Judith Robertson said that while the Scottish Government was to be “commended for many of its actions” on women’s rights, it must go “further, faster” to ensure that gender equality is achieved in Scotland.

Robertson said: “Recent campaigns like #metoo have exposed the reality of just how many women experience day-to-day violations of their rights to safety, security and justice.

“At the same time, women continue to be underrepresented in public life, and to bear the brunt of austerity policies, with women from black and minority ethnic communities, disabled women and women on low incomes often experiencing a double or triple whammy of disadvantage.”

The recommendations put forward fall under a few key themes, including:

Social security

  • The report calls on the Scottish Government to ensure it uses its new social security powers, being phased in over the next three years, to mitigate against the effects of UK welfare reforms on women.


The document highlights the disproportionately negative impact which reforms introduced since 2010 have had on women in Scotland – a trend predicted by SHRC and other equalities and human rights organisations.

Through a series of benefit cuts, the introduction of Universal Credit, and the two-child limit on a number of benefits and tax credits introduced last year, the report explains that women - particularly disabled, black and minority ethnic (BME) and single parents – have been hit hardest.

Under Universal Credit, payments are made into the bank account of one family member – a situation which women’s organisations warned would make it harder for domestic abuse victims to gain financial independence.

While the Scottish Government has introduced an option for couples to request split payments, SHRC also recommends that payments be split automatically to properly address the flaw in the policy.

READ MORE: ‘Stay angry’: Activists urge the public to keep Tories under pressure to scrap two child cap

Employment 

  • SHRC recommends that the Scottish Government develops a national strategy to address the causes of the gender pay gap.


There remains a pay gap of 14.9 per cent in Scotland when men's and women's overall average hourly earnings are compared. This, the report suggests, is the result of occupational segregation, an uneven distribution of caring responsibilities, and a lack of choice around hours, sector and occupation, as well as discriminatory practices.

Women tend to be concentrated in lower paid jobs, with 48 per cent based in the public sector, making up 67 per cent of the workforce in local government and 81 per cent in the NHS. By contrast, only a third of chief executives in the public sector in women, while just 10 per cent of senior managers in science, technology or engineering are women.

SHRC argues that legislation introduced to date, such as the duty on public sector bodies with 150 or more employees and private and third sector organisations with over 250 employees to report on their gender pay gap, doesn’t go far enough.  

The report states that reporting is often inaccurate and lacks the necessary analysis and planning to address the underlying issues.

READ MORE: Public reporting will not shift pay gap, experts warn

Representation 

  • The report recommends that more action be taken by the Scottish Government to increase representation of women in political and public life, including a diverse cross-section of women in Scotland.
     
  • At the same time, SHRC suggests that the Scottish Government works with the media and private sector to support the elimination of stereotypical and objectifying images of women, which it argues serve to disadvantage women in various ways.
     

Currently, just over 35 per cent of MSPs and 29 per cent of councillors in Scotland are women, and all female MSPs are white and non-disabled. While 42 per cent of regulated board members are women, only 26 per cent of public bodies are headed by women, 29 per cent of NHS board chairs are women, and 25 per cent of judicial office holders are women.

New legislation introduced this year means public boards must work to an objective of achieving 50/50 gender balance. However, SHRC points out that there will be no sanctions on authorities which fail to meet these targets. The report also highlights that the law fails to take into account other equalities characteristics and that statistics on the number of BME or disabled women in public positions are not published – something the SHRC says needs to change.

READ MORE: Gender balance fail: Women fewer than a third of total elected councillors

Childcare

  • The report calls on the Scottish Government to go further in ensuring free universal childcare provision which allows women to fully enter the labour market and engage in skills development, and to develop its own programme to address inadequate parental leave provided by the UK Government.
     
  • The UK, it suggests, should increase the rate of payments to address financial barriers to men taking paternal leave.
     

At present, the childcare costs in Scotland are amongst the highest in the world, while fathers are only entitled to two weeks paid paternity leave and the shared parent leave payment falls below the average income for men in the UK. Due, in part, to this fact, only around two per cent of fathers choose to take parental leave.

SHRC argues that changing this circumstance is essential to ensuring that women have equal access to employment, training and educational opportunities. and that universal childcare provision should be serviced by all childcare workers recieving a living wage.

READ MORE: Nationalise childcare service to meet free places ambition, campaigners say

Health and social care

  • The report points to a need for a mental health strategy and training which takes into consideration the particular experiences of women and minority groups.
     
  • It also recommends that the Scottish Government establishes a national independent commission on social care funding, in light of increased pressure on the sector.
     

Women – particularly low-income, disabled and BME women – are more likely to experience depression, and groups such as LGBTI people, refugees or asylum seekers can face additional barriers to accessing support.

Meanwhile, women make up a majority of those providing unpaid care, and almost 90 per cent of those in the social care workforce are women. As the number of adults requiring care is expected to increase by 30 per cent in the next eight years, SHRC argues that urgent planning is required to ensure these demands can be met.
 

Gender-based violence

  • SHRC urges the UK Government to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women And Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention), which would place a legal duty on the government to take sufficient action on the issue.
     
  • The UK, the report argues, should also extend its Destitute Domestic Violence Concession to all women with insecure immigration status.
     
  • Meanwhile, it suggests that the Scottish Government ensures that prosecutors, police and other relevant agencies are appropriately trained in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act, passed earlier this year.
     

The UK Parliament voted in February 2017 to ratify the Istanbul Convention after a member’s bill was introduced by then SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford, but the UK Government has stalled the ratification, arguing that it must first introduce its own Domestic Abuse Bill (expected in 2019).

READ MORE: Explainer: What the Istanbul Convention is and why it matters

The report highlights the findings of the Scottish Parliament’s equality and human rights committee that victims of domestic abuse with no recourse to public funds – due to immigration status – are at particular risk because they are unable to access publicly funded refuge spaces.

While a Destitute Domestic Violence Concession was introduced in 2012 to allows people on a UK partner visa facing domestic abuse to access certain benefits, those with no recourse to public funds are not supported by the measure.     

March 2018 saw the Scottish Parliament pass new legislation which creates a criminal offence of domestic abuse, including psychological abuse. The report argues, however, that significant barriers remain in the criminal justice system and that awareness raising amongst the public and professionals is vital.

Picture courtesy of Michael Coghlan