Women’s rights are human rights. It’s a phrase often used on the international stage and increasingly the power of human rights as women’s rights, and vice versa, is taking hold here in the UK. Essentially, the Human Rights Act brought with it significant power to help drive better outcomes for women – a key theme of International Women’s Day 2017 celebrated across the world today.

 When our parliament passed the Human Rights Act, the intention was to bring human rights home. No longer would people have to travel to the European Court of Human Rights, but instead could take cases in our UK courts. Importantly, though far less publicised, is the reason such cases can now be bought – the Human Rights Act places a legal duty on all our public officials to respect and protect people’s human rights. Now it’s not a matter of “good practice”, need or goodwill, the Human Rights Act fundamentally shifts the balance of power between people and those with public power. This includes women, and their everyday interactions with officials such as police officers, doctors, social workers, teachers, immigration staff, local and central government, and many others making important decisions which impact on women’s lives.  

Through my work in the women’s sector, and now at the British Institute of Human Rights, I have seen how the Human Rights Act really does make the difference to change women’s lives. I see this power in every day, real stories that go nowhere near a court, but instead focus on how women can use the law in ordinary interactions and discussions with public services to challenge and change things for the better. For example:

 

  • Lola, whose asylum claim failed and was served an eviction notice whilst giving birth, used the Human Rights Act to protect herself and her newborn baby from being made homeless upon leaving hospital
  • Selina used the Human Rights Act to challenge a council blanket policy which denied her disabled daughter access to a transport scheme, that would have otherwise meant multiple journeys on public transport simply to get to school
  • Abi, a social worker, who relied on the Human Rights Act to challenge the housing department’s refusal to provide accommodation for Elena and her children, who were at risk of serious harm from a violent ex-partner.

 

Accountability in the courts is also vital for women’s rights. Legally, negligence claims against public services are difficult to establish, leaving those failed by officials with little accountability. The Human Rights Act changed this; now if a public authority fails on its human rights duty, cases can be taken in the UK. This includes the right of a family to bring a case against the police for failures to protect the life of Joanne Michael, who was violently killed by an abusive former partner. The Human Rights Act duty can also include liability for failing to protect women from inhuman and degrading treatment due to inadequate investigations of violence against women. Take for example Laura, a 17 year old whose report of being raped turned into the police arresting her for false allegations after she turned 18, something the police admitted liability for once a human rights case was taken.

Significantly, a key case on human rights and violence against women is up for appeal in the Supreme Court in 5 days’ time. Two brave women who had been raped by John Worboys (dubbed the ‘black cab rapist’ in the media), used the Human Rights Act to challenge a series of police failings to properly investigate their reports of being raped. The courts found that had these failings not occurred, Worboys would have been identified sooner, preventing his attacks on other women. Importantly, it was established that the Human Rights Act meant the women had a right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment (including sexual and domestic violence), and the police have an operational (or actionable) duty to take positive steps to protect this right. This includes a duty to investigate allegations and have adequate systems in place to do so.

The police, supported by the Home Office, have appealed the case to the Supreme Court. They are arguing against there being an operational (or actionable) duty, as it would create too much of a burden. Aside from the operational duty to take action having been clearly established in a number of legal cases in the UK (and the European Court of Human Rights), I find this a worrying and sad position to take. The public officials I have worked with have seen the Human Rights Act duty to protect as key to them being able do their job properly. For the women who have survived, or the families who have lost loved ones to abuse, the Human Rights Act duty is what ensures a route to justice and not the continued silence around violence against women. Southall Black Sisters is running the No Justice without Accountability campaign around the Supreme Court case, which starts on 13 March, you can find out more here.

Given the theme of International Women’s Day – to #BeBoldForChange – it is vital that we all better understand what the Human Rights Act is, and why it is important. As our friends at Southall Black Sisters state:

“now more than ever, we need to safeguard the Human Rights Act 1998 as a key tool of accountability. Without proper police accountability there can be no gender justice. Now more than ever we need to defend women’s rights as human rights.”