A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for women – this is why

The European Union has a long history of dragging the UK kicking and screaming towards gender equality. Without it, British women will get left behind

Jenna Norman
Wednesday 30 January 2019 11:44 GMT
Education secretary Damian Hinds says no-deal Brexit must remain possible

Yesterday evening, MPs voted on the future of Brexit. Despite various opportunities to take a no-deal Brexit off the table, it remains a very real possibility this morning as we inch closer to the 29 March departure date.

No deal is a dangerous fantasy created by those who are nostalgic for a time when Britain ruled the waves and women were spoken but not heard. It would be a disaster for the whole country, not least for women. This is why.

It means tearing up women’s rights legislation

The EU protects our rights to equal pay, maternity leave and safe workplaces. It has a long history of dragging the UK kicking and screaming towards gender equality. A no-deal Brexit would leave these hard-earned rights at the whim of future governments without the protection of an international court.

It might seem unlikely that the UK would turn back the clock on gender equality, but a glance across the pond shows just how easy it is for populist misogyny to gain national credence. This is not the time to be gambling with women’s rights.

Women simply cannot take more austerity

Every assessment of the economic impact of no-deal Brexit projects the UK economy entering a downward spiral. If austerity has taught us anything, it’s that when money’s tight it is women – particularly ethnic minority women – who suffer the most. Women are overrepresented in sectors at high risk from economic downturn, including care and retail, while women are already paid on average 18.1 per cent less than men. Analysis from the Women’s Budget Group has shown that 1 million women’s jobs are at risk from even Theresa May’s Brexit deal, let alone a no deal.

Women in Northern Ireland could struggle to access a safe abortion

A hard border on the island of Ireland doesn’t just mean longer waits for truck drivers or food and medicine shortages: it means women travelling across the border to access safe abortions could face increased checks, costs and delays. For women with unsettled immigration status, or those in abusive relationships, this could mean a restriction to their reproductive rights.

The NHS depends on women

The majority of NHS staff (77 per cent) are women, and women often rely on the NHS more than men for mental health and maternity care. Thousands of posts are already left unfilled as skilled EU workers leave the UK in droves, and there is serious concern from senior NHS officials about further staff shortages, funding problems and research restrictions if we crash out of the European Union.

This is mostly down to the economic impact Brexit will cause – plummeting confidence and investment, stagnated growth, a weakened pound and falling interest rates. There will simply be less tax received, less public money and fewer staff to support our precious health service. This could mean job cuts and service deterioration, once again hitting women the hardest.

We will be left behind on gender equality

The EU is in talks to implement paid carers leave and extend paid parental leave, which would help to rebalance the amount of unpaid care women do. They are also putting pressure on governments to ratify to the most comprehensive legislation to protect women and girls from violence ever: the Istanbul Convention. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner and women are still paid on average 18.1 per cent less than men.

There will be shortages of specialist medicines

Certain medications used only by women are manufactured on the continent. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, women could face disruption to their access to these specialist drugs. Two key hormonal replacement therapy drugs – Estrogel and Estradot patches – are made in Belgium and Germany respectively, while many contraceptive drugs are made in Europe, including Microgynon in Germany and France. If there’s no negotiated deal in place to protect the supply chains of these drugs, women could be faced with sudden and serious hormonal imbalances causing physical and emotional upheaval including depression and insomnia.

Women’s pensions could shrink

Women’s pension payouts are already 40 per cent lower than men’s, and Brexit could make this worse.

There’s been a lot of talk about how no deal will affect young people, but older women will also suffer. According to the charity Age UK, 23 per cent of single elderly women are unable to meet their everyday needs and they receive 39.5 per cent lower pension payments than men – often because they have spent less time in paid employment due to caring responsibilities. Workplace pension pots simply will not be able to keep up with rising living costs if the UK leaves the EU. A weak pound and falling interest rates mean that insurers’ payouts could also devalue for future retirees.

For British nationals living elsewhere in the EU, their pensions could be entirely frozen in a no-deal scenario.

It’s a disaster for working women

Aleady 7,000 nurses and midwives have left the UK since the referendum in 2016. This will leave our hospitals, nurseries and care homes short of staff. Given that women are four times more likely to leave work to care for children and dependents, it’s most likely to be women who forced back into the home when the care crisis hits.

A no-deal Brexit will effectively turn back the clock for working women. And this is all if you already have British citizenship. Full-time carers who may be considered “economically inactive“ will struggle to secure settled status. This means EU nationals living in the UK and caring for vulnerable people may not be able to secure the right to remain in the UK post-Brexit.

It’s imperative that MPs do everything they can to limit the possibility of no deal, for everybody and particularly for women. But Theresa May’s deal is hardly better: it still puts women’s rights in jeopardy and gambles with the economy. MPs need to do the right thing by the country and for gender equality. They need to take no deal off the table and send the decision back to the country by offering a Final Say referendum.

Jenna Norman is a feminist activist and campaigner for Women for a People’s Vote

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