Whatever you think about Brexit, women’s rights mustn't be forgotten | ActionAid UK

As 'Brexit day' approaches, ActionAid calls for a fundamental reorientation of trade and investment policies to improve women’s economic rights by creating safe, fair jobs.

Female garment workers supported by ActionAid campaigning for respect of labour laws in Bangladesh

It’s hard to believe, but it’s now less than six months until the UK formally departs the European Union. As we move towards ‘Brexit day’, it’s vital that politicians consider not just the terms of that separation, but also the future of the UK’s relationships with the rest of the world.

There has, rightly, been a lot of attention given to what our future trade agreements will look like – and which countries they’ll be negotiated with. 

Whether you support Brexit or not, at the moment we have an opportunity to redefine Britain’s position in the world as an influential voice – and to help make the world more equal, more prosperous, more safe and more just.

For that to happen, one thing mustn’t be overlooked – and that’s the rights of women and girls living in poverty. We can, potentially, have a huge influence in transforming their lives. One way of doing that is through the upcoming trade negotiations, which will see us ‘reset’ our relationships with other countries for a post-Brexit world.

The question of how trade can support women’s rights has been steadily moving up the political agenda in the UK in recent years – and rightly so.

At ActionAid, we know that all too often, when the poorest countries open up to global trade, initiatives that aim to ‘integrate’ women into the process – and create jobs – can fall far wide of the mark.

The result can be the creation of low paid jobs, with poor working conditions that undermine workers’ rights. Women are usually the very people who take these jobs, and so they are disproportionally affected.

In Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, women make up around 80% of the garment manufacturing workforce, sewing clothes to be exported by major global brands.

They are often young, poorly educated migrants from impoverished rural areas. They work long hours in cramped, toxic and unsafe conditions – and many are exposed to harassment, sexual assault or other forms of violence at work. And because the pay is so low, many female garment workers face the same problems we see the world over when women don’t make enough to support themselves; they can spiral into debt, or be forced to stay with abusive partners.

A major step-change is long overdue. What’s needed is a fundamental reorientation of trade and investment policies. We know that when trade deals are improved, then trade can truly support women’s economic rights by creating safe, fair jobs. This, in turn, helps stop violence again women and girls, and encourages gender equality for the long-term.

That’s why we’ve been recently making the case for ‘gender-just trade’ at the World Trade Organization and elsewhere. We’ve launched ten principles for the UK and other policy makers to consider, aimed at ensuring women’s rights are at the heart of a truly just, sustainable approach to trade policy. And we’ve been speaking to the UK Government, the business community, think tanks and women’s rights organisations, to spread awareness of how trade policy affects women’s rights.
Whether people voted for Brexit or not, it’s vital to consider the impact of our new trade policy on women’s rights after March 2019. Trade must support – not undermine – the global effort to uphold women’s rights, human rights, labour rights and the environment, in line with international commitments that governments have signed up to.

We will continue to work with policy makers, and others involved in this debate, as we move towards and beyond Brexit day. This is an opportunity to be a true leader on the world stage – we must use it.

Nicola Bailey/ActionAid