Why our Human Rights Act Matters...for ending violence against women and girls
Rani Selvarajah is the Senior Research and Policy Officer at the End Violence Against Women Coalition. The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) is a UK-wide coalition of over 100 women’s organisations and others working to end violence against women and girls (VAWG) in all its forms. EVAW campaigns for improved national and local government policy and practice in response to all forms of violence against women and girls and challenges the wider cultural attitudes that tolerate violence against women and girls and make excuses for it.
Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.
The Human Rights Act is a critical tool in upholding women’s rights and challenging failures by the State in how it responds to and prevents violence against women and girls (VAWG). The End Violence Against Women Coalition and Southall Black Sisters have previously detailed how the Human Rights Act provides legal protection that is fundamental to women’s rights, as an overwhelming number of police failings relate to sexual violence and domestic abuse. But the government plans to overhaul this essential law – which will impact how we are able to protect our basic rights.
Unlike a doctor or lawyer, the police can’t be sued for negligence, which means the Human Rights Act is the only tool in UK law that can be used to compel them to take responsibility for and address their failures.
One of the most vital tools the Human Rights Act provides for women challenging the State’s failures relating to VAWG is the right to judicial review. Women have on relied on judicial review to hold the police to account for failing to protect them from rapists like John Worboys. In the Worboys case, these systemic and individual failings included not taking women who reported seriously, not collecting evidence or CCTV information, and failing to search his home. This meant he was not caught and able to assault women for many years. The High Court thus concluded that these failures amounted to a clear breach of the women’s human rights.
In 2019 EVAW launched a judicial review against the CPS to hold them to account for the abysmal rates of rape prosecution and, despite not ultimately being successful, the legal challenge brought huge public awareness to the failures in the criminal justice system regarding the treatment of rape, led to changes to prosecution guidance and harnessed political attention to women’s struggle for justice. However, the government plans to get rid of judicial review will limit survivors’ ability to challenge the State. Without this, it will be harder to challenge when the police, CPS or any other State institution breaches a survivor’s human rights in their response to VAWG.
Students have also been able to challenge schools for their failure to properly protect girls from sexual violence and harassment under the Human Rights Act as this constitutes a breach of their right to education. The concept of “education” for human rights purposes is not confined to teaching; it covers all school-related activities, not just what happens in the classroom. If a child is denied the right to education because sexual harassment or violence that they experience prevents them from attending school or school-related activities, the school could be in breach of their human rights and equalities obligations.
The Human Rights Act has been vital in protecting women’s rights, yet the government persistently uses VAWG to justify harmful legislation that will roll back our rights. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is an attack on our fundamental human rights including the right to protest, which is woven into the long and rich history of women’s rights movements. Its proposals will increase police powers which, in turn, would increase police profiling and intrusion into the lives of marginalised and minoritised communities which has a direct, devastating impact on the lives of Black and minoritised women.
The Nationality and Borders Bill that the government is pushing also seeks to criminalise women and girls crossing borders to seek safety, many of whom are survivors of violence. Again, the government claims that the Bill will help women – a claim thoroughly rejected by many in the VAWG sector and by leading legal experts. This piece of legislation is a clear attack on the human rights of refugee and asylum-seeking women and must be resisted.
This past year we have seen the government routinely declare their commitment to tackling violence against women. Yet, at the same time, they continue to try to strip away our human rights at every turn which will only serve to make women and girls, particularly those most marginalised, even more vulnerable to abuse and left with little recourse to justice when they are let down by the State. We must resist all attempts to remove or water down women’s human rights in the UK if we are serious about ending violence against women.
Rights Removal Bill Update
In December 2021, the UK Government announced plans to "overhaul" the Human Rights Act. We asked for EVAW's thoughts on the reforms and they said:
"The plans to scrap the Human Rights Act are alarming and dangerous for women and girls. Many of the proposals would make it more difficult to challenge and secure justice for violence against women and girls, which are violations of women's human rights. We are opposed to proposals to amend section 2 of the Human Rights Act, which risks leaving the UK with a lower standard of rights protection and to introduce new hurdles to people making human rights claims. In particular, any attempt to curb the positive obligations of public authorities would remove a vital legal route for victims and survivors to hold the system to account for failures to protect them - including police failures. We are also alarmed by the framing of the Human Rights Act as an "impediment" to tackling "irregular immigration". We have already seen how eroding the rights of migrant women prevents us from tackling VAWG. These proposals would mark a major threat to our fight to end VAWG."
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