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“The State of Women’s Rights Today” – Baroness Helena Kennedy QC leads latest roundtable

Posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2021
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC – portrait photo

We were privileged that Baroness Helena Kennedy QC accepted our invitation to address our latest policy roundtable The State of Women’s Rights Today on Wednesday 5 May. 

The session aimed to kickstart our new workstream on women’s rights, and we were delighted to welcome a very impressive array of experts working on the front line of these issues – including an MP, women working at a variety of NGOs, academics, lawyers, funders, and members of Jewish community organisations. 

The session was chaired by René Cassin trustee, Rachel Zaltzman. It is a testament to Rachel’s experience and skill that she so smoothly oversaw a lively and wide-ranging online discussion with more than thirty participants. 

Thank you to all involved in such an enlightening and inspiring event. As with all our roundtables, the discussion took place under Chatham House rules, so the following note is an anonymised précis of the discussion. However, we cannot resist one ‘peak behind the Chatham House curtain’, as Helena started proceedings by revealing that Monsieur René Cassin is one of my heroes”. 

Lots of effort, not much effect 

  • The 1970s saw legislative progress – e.g. introduction of Sex Discrimination Act – but progress in law not matched with changes for women in real terms; 
  • Change has been centred on law and criminal justice system, which is male-formulated (tests established on basis of ‘the reasonable man’), and still overseen by a male-dominated  judiciary (e.g. male desire is at the basis of rape and rape understood to be about lust) 
  • Many women who have stuck their head above the parapets have faced attacks in their personal and professional lives, as an organisation entering into women’s rights territory we must be careful about this 

Urgent improvements are needed in criminal justice system, at home … 

  • Need to improve training for judges 
  • Recognition of effect of trauma on evidence from victims and witnesses – i.e. challenge culture of disbelief 
  • The common law never embraced the point of view of the victim, a problem remedied by the Human Rights Act 

… and abroad 

  • International criminal law interfering with women’s reproductive freedom, religious freedom (e.g. case of Yazidi women) 
  • Challenge of cultural relativity especially when relates to physical harm (e.g. FGM, child marriage) 
  • In many countries women do not have equal access to the criminal justice system 

But the justice system has been under attack 

  • Austerity has left the legal system in very poor shape 
  • Legal Aid has been decimated  
  • This puts pressure on women to ‘solve their problems’ themselves 
  • Crucial improvements like the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, and Judicial Review are under threat 

Is the criminal justice system the best way to deal with issues? 

  • More women coming forward – e.g. ‘Me Too’ movement and social media gives women a way of being heard about the ways in which laws have failed 

The core problem is misogyny 

  • Not so much about hatred as about entitlement and ‘holding women in their place’ 
  • Challenge is changing the current patriarchy-based framing of women and equality from ‘rights and duties’ to equality 
  • We need to address the fact that for men, there seems to be a sense of loss in women’s advancement – need to shift the narrative from ‘loss’ to ‘gain’ 
  • Intersectionality is a core part of conceptualising responses to misogyny, though – any effective provision will reference the intersectionality of protected characteristics, in particular sex and ethnicity or religion or belief. 
  • Protection for dual discrimination that was included in the Equality Act 2010 but never implemented. A key advocacy priority we could consider could be implementation of all outstanding provisions of the EA2010.  

Covid has set women back 

  • Women have become even more marginalised than centre stage, yet they have carried much of the load throughout the crisis 
  • Inequality faced by women intersects with other forms of inequality (work, welfare, childcare etc). Women’s inequality at home (amplified during covid e.g. bore responsibility for home schooling) is core to women inequality in the work market. Until we solve the former, we will not be able to change the latter 
  • There is an unconscious bias that equality is something that could be ‘addressed later’