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If you had between two and three minutes to tell the UN's women's rights committee which issues for women in Scotland they should be focusing on, what would you say? It's one of the odder tasks in women's rights advocacy, and one that we'll be taking on in Geneva in Monday.
The Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a UN Convention that was developed at the tail end of the 1970s, and was ratified by the UK Government in 1986. Known as the international bill of rights for women, its articles include equal protection for women and equality of access to education, the law, political power and representation, economic resources and social security, and a whole raft of other areas of life. Like other international obligations, its legal status is somewhat murky when it comes to individuals. You can't go along to a Sheriff court in Scotland and assert your CEDAW rights, but courts can consider it when they're making some types of decision (for more info on how CEDAW could help women's rights be realised in Scotland, see our report here.)
The UN CEDAW Committee itself can also sit as a court of inquiry when systemic breaches of rights are taking place, or a kind of court of last resort when individuals have exhausted every legal remedy in their own state. There are some examples of this below.
In June, I spent most of a week at the European Women's Lobby general assembly in Brussels, where I was elected to its board of administration.
The Lobby is the largest European umbrella of women's organisations, and its general assembly is an annual gathering of all of the national co-ordinations. Engender represents Scotland within the Lobby.
Some of you who follow European feminism or institutional feminist politics will have seen the Lobby pop up on Twitter, in our Friday Feminist Five mailers, but their work is much less familiar to other feminists in Scotland.
I thought I'd share five things about the Lobby (and Engender's involvement with it) that might be of interest.
In the past week there’s been a slight autumn chill in the air in the mornings, and a pleasing back-to-school vibe in genderland that speaks of newly sharpened pencils and fresh notebooks.
Autumn is a season of new beginnings, as well as mellow fruitfulness, and the last few days has seen the launch of Scotland’s Programme for Government as well as Engender’s own Gender Matters Roadmap.
Sometimes in the life of a gender advocate the stars align to create a Platonic policy process. A proposal comes forward from government that is simple and easy to understand. Gender-disaggregated data is available. Other women’s organisations have the resource and interest to engage in a discussion about how to respond. Women are easy to include in the conversation. Feminist analysis leads inexorably to specific policy calls. Colleagues from across civil society agree with our take on the government’s proposals, and integrate our asks into their lobbying strategies. Government listens keenly to our input and develops its policy accordingly.
Most of the time, though, there is much more friction in feminist policy and advocacy. Government proposals may be vague or unclear, or broken into chunks that are hard to knit together. Consultation processes may be too short. There may be no data on how the policy will affect women and men, or no data at all. Other women’s organisations may not have the time or resource to focus on a specific area of policy, because of competing priorities. Feminist analysis may produce politically untenable asks. Other women’s organisations may disagree on our analysis or approach, or have other political drivers to sit out a particular issue. Colleagues from across civil society may feel that the gender dimension is a distraction or dilution of their own urgent priorities. Government may intentionally shape a consultation process to distance civil society, and women’s organisations.
The recent lobby and advocacy around the ‘family cap’ and ‘rape clause’ has definitely involved some friction. What that is, and why that has been sheds some light on broader questions about gender and policy.
There are lots of people in Scotland who have only become aware of the ‘rape clause’ in the last few weeks. In fact, its story began almost two years ago. So what’s been going on, and where do we go from here?
A very familiar question was raised again this week: should women-only organisations, women-only services, and women-only governance and leadership be lauded as progressive or shunned as discriminatory? Several media outlets reported on the fact that Moray Women’s Aid has elected to leave the Scottish Women’s Aid network. The local women’s aid is in contravention of its network’s shared commitment to individual services being governed and staffed by women, having confirmed that is has at least one man on its board of directors, Cllr Graham Leadbitter.
“We disaffiliated ourselves because we were not prepared to discriminate blatantly,” Moray Women’s Aid’s manager, Elle Johnston, was reported as saying in the Herald. Catriona Stewart, Glasgow Women’s Aid board member and journalist, took very public aim at the policy in another piece in the Herald, describing it as “a rigid model that threatens to weaken the network and refuses to allow for evolution as society evolves.”
The notion of women-led services has been framed in much of the coverage as backwards, inflexible, and an impediment to the very equality that feminists purport to want. So is Scottish Women’s Aid’s policy discriminatory? And what is the point of women-only feminist leadership anyway?
In her piece, Stewart asks whether having men on Moray Women’s Aid has been effective: "Has it done any good, should be the test?" A paper from Moray Council suggests that the original vision for Moray Women’s Aid governance was almost as an arms-length organisation of the local authority, with two elected members as executive directors and a further three serving on the board. That plan was shelved, but unusually, Cllr Leadbitter was nominated directly by the council onto Moray’s board as it was established. According to its annual accounts, Moray Women’s Aid board was majority male or fifty-fifty between its incorporation in 2008 and 2013, which means that decision-making was possible for most of those years by an all-male quorum. While Moray Women’s Aid certainly delivered vital services during this time, its account of itself gives the impression that it lacked some of the governance that might, for example, have enabled it to meet some of the digital demands of 21st century service delivery. Its 2015 accounts plead for a “knowledgeable computer expert” to help keep its internal systems up to date, and it doesn’t have a website. Other strategic decisions made by the board run contrary to the gendered analysis in Scotland’s bold new violence against women strategy, Equally Safe. It says that it has redesigned its logo to “encapsulate a more generic outlook, while still focusing on the needs of women and children”.
But it is on the needs of women and children that the call for feminist, women-only governance and leadership rests.
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