Jeremy Browne MP writes…There is no opt out clause for equality for women and girls in a liberal society

In my lifetime, the role of women and girls in British society has been transformed. There has been an emancipation revolution.

Many of these changes have been legal. It seems remarkable today to reflect that, until 1975, women were not allowed to buy a house without financial guarantees being provided by a man, typically their father or husband.Other changes have been cultural. It is extraordinary, for example, that until 1972 a female diplomat in the Foreign Office was required to resign if she got married.

As each of these barriers to female attainment has been removed, women have capitalised on the opportunities that equality has afforded them. In virtually every walk of life now it is wholly unremarkable to see women in positions of high responsibility. Indeed, in many informal respects, women have moved beyond parity and are succeeding in greater numbers than men. In a complete reversal from a generation ago, for example, girls now outperform boys at school.

This is the emancipation revolution. After thousands of years of female disadvantage, this virtuous upheaval in our society has happened in just a few decades. It is exhilarating for all true liberals who believe, as I do, that every person should have the freedom to be who they are, and the opportunity to be everything they could be. That is the liberal society.

But it is not, if we are honest and blunt, the reality for every woman and girl in Britain. The emancipation revolution should apply universally. It should benefit everyone. But it does not.

There are thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of women and girls in Britain who do not enjoy the benefits of living in our liberal society.

That is not because of some accident or oversight. It is much worse than that. It is because of a deliberate rejection of the emancipation revolution and the equal opportunities now afforded to women and girls.

This  situation is wrong.

It is unacceptable for the individual women and girls whose freedom and opportunities are stifled. And it is wrong for our society. There cannot be a pick-and-mix approach to living in a benign liberal country. The benefits must be universal, without exceptions or exemptions.

I do not believe that cultural relativism provides an excuse to opt-out of our shared liberal social settlement. Everyone should enjoy the freedom to make their own choices, without the fear of social coercion.

Let me spell out some examples of what I mean. Forced marriage has no place in our benign liberal society. The victims are overwhelmingly young women and girls. Like everyone else they should be free to marry who they wish. Or not to marry at all. That is their decision. And that is why we will be criminalising forced marriage. We should also make clear our collective repulsion about so called “honour crimes”. The victims are also nearly always vulnerable young women and girls. What possible honour can there be in murder, rape or kidnap? None, and it has no place in our society.

And today we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance of female genital mutilation.

Female Genital Mutilation is abhorrent.

Sewing up a young girls’ vagina or cutting a five year-old’s clitoris is just plain barbaric.

Looked at in these simple, stark terms, I would hope and believe that when front-line professionals came across such a brutal process – particularly when such violence is practised against children – they would do everything in their power to first and foremost protect the victim and then help bring the perpetrator to justice.

And yet……according to a study based on census data, there are around 20,000 girls in Britain who are at risk of Female Genital Mutilation. One hospital in North London alone has recorded 450 cases of Female Genital Mutilation in the last three years. But despite Female Genital Mutilation being illegal for 25 years, there has still not been a single prosecution.

Something does not add up.

I can only conclude that there is nervousness amongst some professionals to confront the practice of Female Genital Mutilation head on. That it is viewed as an exotic or unusual custom practised by a culture they should not intrude upon. That there is a cultural relativism that leads them to excuse what is being done to other people’s daughters when they would never allow it to be done to their own.

That those professionals are somehow not seeing Female Genital Mutilation for what it really is. Because what it is, categorically and unequivocally, is child abuse.

It can never be excused or ignored and it should be treated in the same way as any other form of child abuse.

I want to urge anyone who has real concerns that a girl may be at risk of Female Genital Mutilation to report it – just as they would report their concerns about a child at risk of any other form of child abuse. To do so is not cultural persecution; it is not racial or religious intolerance; it is about promoting child protection. 

That is my message to frontline professionals – in hospitals, in schools, in social services departments – report your concerns to the police. All the safeguarding guidelines and legal frameworks that exist to tackle child abuse apply to tackling Female Genital Mutilation.  The law is on your side.

If we overcome misplaced cultural sensitivities; if guidelines are followed and if the law is enforced then we will finally see a prosecution of this heinous crime. A prosecution will send a vital and strong message to perpetrators that we will not tolerate this abuse, and if the law is ignored then there will be legal consequences.

But enforcing the law is only one way of protecting the health and well being of future generations. Fundamentally we also need to change values and beliefs. We need to ceaselessly work to encourage everyone to appreciate and embrace the basic principle that women and girls have an equal stake in our society to men and boys.

There is no opt-out clause when it comes to equality for women and girls in a liberal society. Customs and traditions can no longer be used as an excuse or a shield for people who are shunning the values that the rest of our society have embraced.

The emancipation revolution is universal, and women and girls, regardless of their background or culture, are entitled to exactly the same protections, freedoms and privileges as their fathers and brothers.

* Jeremy Browne is the MP for Taunton Deane, and was previously a minister in both the Home and Foreign offices.

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6 Comments

  • Helen Dudden 6th Feb '13 - 9:53pm

    Jeremy, it was once thought that women, and not that long ago, were here to produce children. With birth control, we could take control of our lives.

    To make change happen takes time, and effort, the husbands who are children now, will be ones, that make the changes. It has to be part of their education. Men can’t except the situation as it now, to continue. Also, a mother has to take responsibility for her daughter.

    Best wishes for your success.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 7th Feb '13 - 7:47am

    “In my lifetime, the role of women and girls in British society has been transformed. There has been an emancipation revolution”

    This sweeping statement may well be supported by 49% of the population, but the other 51% that are female I suspect would not be so ambitious and make such a statement, albeit they would love to be in a position to do so.

    Although, as has been highlighted, many of the changes have been legal, as a Party we are part of a Coalition, that is currently removing some of the teeth to the legislation in the proposals within the Enterprise and Regulatory Bill, that will severely limit the effectiveness of the Equality Act, 2010.

    By mentioning this, I am not trying to water down the theme of the majority of this article, which rightly highlights many genuine concerns that require immediate action, but lets remember that sex discrimination has not been eradicated, and we still have a long way to go before the gender balance at home, in the workplace, and wider society has been redressed correctly.

    As for whether there has been a ‘revolution’ in change, I would say not, but it is thankfully slightly faster than ‘evolution’, albeit not much faster.

    Going back to the main theme of this article, the victims of such abhorrent abuse often need specialist assistance, support and refuge. Sadly as a result of the fiscal cuts, much of this specialist support has been lost. I would suggest that such services need to be enhanced very swiftly, otherwise the victims will continue to suffer.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion

  • Ruth Bright 7th Feb '13 - 10:37am

    What an unbelievably patronising piece. Its premise appears to be that the war for female equality is basically won (this from a member of an 88% male parliamentary party) with just this one last battle left to fight.

  • I am delighted by Jeremy’s stance on the issue of FGM. Lynne Featherstone too is fantastic on this. I was at an event about ending FGM last night at the Lords. Both Ministers were there, both talking about joined up thinking to end FGM in the UK and around the world. It was brilliant. I was there because the charity I head up, http://www.rosauk.org is part of a £1.6m initiative announced yesterday to tackle FGM in the UK. It was an inspirational evening, and I am thrilled Rosa is part of the effort to end FGM, and also thrilled that two Liberal Democrats are in Ministerial positions which lead on this issue in government.

  • We are not there yet. Discrimination against the public by businesses is rife and puts women and children at risk. Alternatives to gender based policies for opposite sex workers are now largely absent or ignored in single sex toilets and washing/showering/changing room facilities where permanent warning signs that male and female staff regularly check these facilities (or similar), are being used to allow free access to female facilities by male workers (and vice versa) while people are using them by gaining implied consent from unsuspecting service users.

    People are being denied a choice to use a single sex facility provided for them with same sex privacy because employers are not using Genuine Occupational Requirements ‘s for same sex workers when it is proportionate and legitimate to do so, nor operating robust access policies for existing users, so that they can reduce their cleaning costs. People are deterred form complaining by being told that it is discrimination to complain and then complaints are used as a means to monitoring the situation, despite the fact that it is well known that sexual abuse silences its victims and often deters them from making formal complaints.

    GEO comment
    ‘while I accept there may have been isolated issues in the past of the kind you cite, the Government Equalities Office has not received any other correspondence or representation to this effect. This to us suggests that the new arrangements are working in the way intended and that employers are, by and large, responsibly considering whether their employees nee to be of a certain gender in jobs where issues of public decency may arise and are making appropriate use of the proviso that opting for an employee of an appropriate gender is a proportionate means of achieving that legitimate aim. EHRC has issued a statutory code or practice for employers which covers the occupational requirement provisions and how they are intended to operate. The GEO and EHRC will of course continue to monitor the position and if it were to become clear that employers would benefit from further guidance we would act on that’.

    So why haven’t they acted by now?

    It is clear that guidance is being ignored because the permissive law allows employers to ignore it and people are hoodwinked because they largely do not know their rights.Those who do complain are being ignored. However, a recent anonymous online toilet survey (Bedfordshire Race & Equalities Council) demonstrated that t least 1:3 users are being compromised or put off using a toilet facility provided for them when they need to due to poor employment practices. That is the same as the risk of developing cancer and is a significant minority when it concerns accessing single sex services.
    Many people (especially those with a history of sexual abuse), experience cross sex observation as abusive in itself, and should not be forced in to situations which may trigger feelings of abuse when they need to use a toilet or changing room. This effectively meets with the principles of harassment if a mans right to have a job takes priority over a woman’s right to object to his presence, even in female single sex facilities (& vice versa).

    There are obvious concerns when policies/lack of, force cross sex observation in existing single sex facilities, especially in the current climate of sexual abuse where lack of transparency and corruption due to business needs are being put before the needs of service users.

    This deception has fundamental implications, particularly for the future of women’s rights and safety, and effectively perpetuates male dominance over women, even in single sex areas which essentially subverts the principles underpinning the entire equality and human rights legislation.

    There is an urgent need for regulation to safeguard children and vulnerable members of the public from physical and psychological/dignitary harm.

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