Time to drive gender equality home with robust legislation

This blog first appeared in The National

It is now three months until the Scottish Parliament elections. Elections which, we hope, will see manifesto pledges made for women’s equality, and a record number of women MSPs elected. Engender will be working up until the election to call for parties to commit to our “20 for 2016” – 20 asks which we think could see real progress towards women’s equality in Scotland. We’ll be supporting groups across the country to hold “Gender Matters” hustings events, and we’ll be writing in The National about a different ask each week.

When Engender was consulting with women across Scotland about what changes they want to see to achieve equality for women, one theme kept coming through: while politicians may talk the good talk on equality, action to tackle the gaps in men’s and women’s lived experience has stalled. Structural and cultural barriers remain in place, meaning our vision for a Scotland where women and men have equal opportunities in life, equal access to resources and power, and are equally safe and secure from harm, has not yet been achieved.

Even where we have commitments from the Scottish Government on tackling gender equality, these can be undermined by spending and policy decisions made in government departments not focused on equality. There needs to be coherence across the Scottish Government to ensure that, as policy is developed, the impact that this will have on women’s equality is considered.

We know, for example, that women’s economic inequality is both a cause and a consequence of violence against women. The Scottish Government has done great work around violence against women, with the Equally Safe ambition statement recognising that women’s experience of the labour market must change significantly if men’s violence is to be prevented. Yet without making sure that economic development strategies prioritise breaking down barriers to economic inequality for women, Equally Safe stands in isolation. We need a holistic approach to ensure we truly achieve women’s equality in Scotland.

That’s why we’re calling for – as the first of 20 asks in our Gender Matters Manifesto – a Gender Equality Bill which would create a statutory footing for tackling gender inequality in Scotland. We’re not specifying what the bill would cover – as this should be developed with a diverse range of women’s organisations and women – but it could, for example, include things like the creation of a Women’s Commissioner, the incorporation of key international conventions into domestic law, and setting targets for public services vital for women’s equality, such as childcare.

This isn’t a new idea. There are already examples of bills like this in Scotland and internationally. The Child Poverty Act, for example, came about in recognition of the fact that measures already in place weren’t doing enough, and it established targets for the eradication of child poverty. The act included duties for ministers and public bodies to deliver against these targets, and created an independent Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty.

On gender equality, too, the UK has legislation to ensure that all overseas aid spending promotes gender equality. This has been hailed as pioneering legislation by international development campaigners, and Scotland could take a similar lead in tackling domestic gender inequality.

We can also learn from international examples. Both France and Denmark have legislation to ensure gender equality is at the heart of policy, and last year New York State passed a Women’s Equality Act.

Scotland should be following these examples and driving gender issues into the heart of policymaking; and moving beyond rhetoric towards real equality for women, girls and communities.

Read our Gender Equality Bill Briefing and take action here.

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