NOTTINGHAM, England — It has been more than two and a half years since Britain voted to leave the European Union. As the rest of the world knows, nothing since then has gone smoothly. It’s not even clear where most voters stand on the issue today. But despite the nonstop debate, women’s voices continue to be almost entirely sidelined.
That has been the pattern since the original Brexit campaign: male voices dominated 85 percent of press coverage, according to researchers at Loughborough University, regardless of charges by prominent female politicians that men were “pushing women out” of the debate — and that Prime Minister Theresa May is leading the exit negotiations.
Dr. Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the independent Women’s Budget Group, which tracks economic policy across Britain, told PassBlue that her organization remains “concerned about the lack of women’s voices and that of marginalized groups in Brexit discussions.” The group supports an extension of negotiations “to involve a wider range of voices.”
So far, Parliament has yet to formally debate the potential impact of Brexit on women, and the government has done no gender-impact assessments.
Private groups have tried to pick up the slack. A report released last year by the Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society, another organization that promotes gender equality, said that most economists believed Brexit would lead to a downturn in gross domestic product and likely “result in further cuts to government spending which will have disproportionate impact on women, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”
Already, the report said, “the process of Brexit is diverting political attention and increasing levels of public resources away from urgent social issues such as the crisis in social care, housing and economic inequality, all of which disproportionately affect women.”
Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, voiced similar concerns after visiting Britain in November, saying: “Given the vast number of policies, programs and spending priorities that will need to be addressed over the next few years, and the major changes that will inevitably accompany them, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society who will be least able to cope and will take the biggest hit.”
Alston included women in the category of most vulnerable and disadvantaged, as they are “particularly affected by poverty” and make up a disproportionate number of primary caregivers, single parents and domestic-violence victims.
Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, a national body, has recommended that the government “ensure that the loss of EU funding does not undermine the UK’s equality and human rights infrastructure, including the already scarce funding available to specialist services, such as those that support women survivors of violence and domestic abuse.” To date, the government has made no such assurances.
At a Women’s Refuge Center, a safe house for women and children experiencing domestic abuse, in Nottingham, an employee who asked not to be named for security reasons said that Brexit has thrown a voting-rights reform into limbo. Until last March, women living at Refuge Centers were unable to vote because they did not have fixed addresses. Steps to remedy this problem were introduced, but as long as Brexit is up in the air “we’re not aware of what exactly is going to happen,” she said.
The official government line is that Brexit would promote social equality, but “working women need far more than warm words on workers’ rights from the prime minister,” Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, which represents 48 such unions in Britain, told PassBlue. “We need a binding guarantee for all workers’ rights, now and into the future. We won’t support a Brexit deal which fails this test, and the government has come nowhere close to meeting it.”
Most women voted to remain in the European Union, while most men voted to leave, according to Ipsos Mori, leading British market-research company. Individuals of either gender were more likely to vote to leave if they were older than 55 or unemployed.
When the People’s Vote Campaign, which supports proposals for a second referendum, surveyed voters in September, 56 percent of the women supported staying in the European Union.
As interviews with a range of voters revealed, women bring a variety of perspectives to the table.
Geraldine McKay, a retired university lecturer in Edinburgh, who voted to remain, said, “It seems that every post-Brexit — ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ — forecast suggests a blow to the economy” and an end to European funding for supporting equality.
Different fears were voiced by Jamie Louise White, a 27-year-old freelance orchestral musician from Glasgow who has studied in London and currently works in Berlin. (The majority of people in Scotland had voted to remain in Europe.)
“I have enjoyed the privilege of free movement through Europe throughout my career,” she told PassBlue. “I have huge concerns about how Brexit will impact the ability of artists in the UK to continue to contribute to not just classical and orchestral music, but the arts in general on the European stage, and fear that severing our ties with the European Union will mean a slowing down or even reduction of the, until now, ever-growing diversity within this particular realm of the arts.”
Alice Elizabeth Allan, 24, an international marketing executive based in Nottingham, voted to leave but now has doubts. She said: “I want to go traveling, and free movement is quite important to me. In my current role, we rely on trade and freedom of movement around Europe — this could be a big problem for the company I work for.”
But other outwardly thinking women don’t necessarily see things this way. Alexandra Phillips, 35, a British political consultant based in Brussels, supported leaving Europe and maintains this view.
“When I lived in Africa, I saw how protectionist and exploitative the EU was as a multinational, corporate-powered commercial force and how it locked the developing world in agrarian toil . . . without any down-flow of job creation and skills development, while Europeans exploit Africa’s natural resources tariff free . . . oblivious to the cartel they are propping up.
“I see Brexit as the key that could unlock decades of imbalance and set in motion a new direction in global trade with the UK leading by example,” she said.
That remains to be seen as Britain hurtles toward the exit on March 29 —along with a better understanding of how Brexit could affect such straightforward aspects as gender equality and economic opportunities for women in their country.
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Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.