How Brexit is changing women’s lives podcast

As we navigate our way through the challenges of 2021, we are finally finding out the answer to that perennial question – what does Brexit actually mean?

In this episode, we are asking what Brexit means for women, and if it heralds a further rollback of women’s rights. Feminist Activists on Brexit: from the political to the personal is a recently published edited collection that brings together the Brexit experiences of feminist activists from across the UK.

We talk to four of the contributors about who’s voices were left out of the Brexit debate, and what that means for the women in those communities.

Speaker profiles

Moestak Hussein, Counter Extremism Coordinator, Bristol City Council @MoestakHussein

Tove Samzelius, Department of Sociology, Malmo University @TSamzelius

Lynn Carvill, (Women’s Budget Group Northern Ireland) @lynncarvill

Emma Ritch (Engender Scotland)  @EngenderScot @EmmaRitch

Find out more about SPAN

In this episode:

  • The impact of the Brexit narrative on minority communities in the UK
  • The role of grassroots organizations and minority communities in policy and decision-making
  • How activism supports women's participation in transformative democratic processes
  • The implications of Brexit for women in Scotland and Northern Ireland
  • What policymakers can do to mitigate the impact of Brexit on women and women’s rights.

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Transcript

How Brexit is changing women’s lives


Helen Beddow:

As we navigate our way through 2021, we are finally finding out the answer to that eternal question what does Brexit actually mean? in these next two episodes? We're asking What does Brexit mean for women and for women's rights. Feminist activists on Brexit from the political to the personal is a recently published edited collection that brings together the Brexit experiences of feminist activists from across the UK asks, Are we risking the rollback of women's rights? In this first episode, we talked to four feminist activists about whose voices were left out of the Brexit debate, and what that means for the women in these communities.

Tove Samzelius:

I'm Tove Samzelius, and currently I work with Save the children in Sweden, promoting diversity, but I used to live in Bristol for many, many years and I was a director at SPAN.

Moestak  Hussein:

I'm Moestak Hussein, I used to be community development and learning support assistance at SPAN. I left span in 2016 and ince works with the University of Bristol and currently Bristol City Council. I work in community safety.

Helen:

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get involved in feminist activism and why it is so important to you?

Moestak:

I live in Bristol, I'm kind of an international child really, born in the Emirates emigrated to Holland after the Civil War, where my family's from in Somaliland, and then migrated to the UK again, when I was 15 and ended up in Bristol after I got married quite young and lived hear ever since and I'm hoping to stay. Initially feminism was something that wasn't speaking to me at all, I was quite angry actually that feminism didn't speak to me, I felt as a black Muslim female. In my younger days, I was always… everything I did, who I was, who I represented, was completely at odds with feminism. And then I came across the concept of intersectionality, actually, and then I became more interested. And I felt that that was really addressing and understanding the aspects of the social factors in my life, in terms of my background, race, economic status, etc, etc. So it's become a really important part of my life. And it's almost become really the vehicle that drives my journey into life and helps me make change with my activism as well.

Tove:

I think it’s interesting what you're saying, because obviously, we've known each other for probably about 12 years but at the time I was working at SPAN and we didn't really talk about ourselves as a feminist organisation as such, Although, obviously, SPANs roots…. I think what we were doing was a  kind of feminist practice, we spoke more about women's rights, spoke more about kind of empowerment, possibilities for mothers to live, you know, fulfilling lives, to evolve in life and out of poverty and stuff like that. So for many years, we didn't really talk about feminism. But if I kind of look back, and when I really started to think about my own situation, I think, for me, it was more personal. I became a single parent, while I was a PhD student, nothing that I did, was really geared towards women like myself. I had a daughter and a family, just things like when they had seminars, when everything was putting me at a disadvantage. And although there were feminist scholars in the department, the practicality of actually being a single parent, so it was a personal struggle, that kind of became political, and then I found SPAN when my daughter was one year old,

Helen:

Could you explain to me about SPAN and what it is?

Tove:

SPAN is an organisation really that was started by and for the parents, in the City of Bristol in 1990. And that's when they got funding to set up Single Parent Action Network. And then over about 25 years, it developed into quite a successful, larger, grassroots charity that was based in in the City of Bristol, both nationally and internationally. But what was unique I would say about SPAN was that it was very multicultural. We all came from very different backgrounds. So I was the director of the study centre.

Moestak:

SPAN did become sort of like a safe haven for a lot of women in terms of the work we did. The activism we did, the grassroots work we did, it was to really better the lives and quality of life for women and children and young people. So actually, although we didn't recognise it as a feminist organisation, but everything we did was really to benefit that systematic and structural inequality of women

Tove:

it was done in a very practical way. And now I've since done a PhD, where I've kind of looked a lot of theories about feminist social work and other things. And I kind of think always, I think that's what we did. We did all of that in practice. And also, I think, because for a lot of the women that we were working with, they couldn't relate to those kind of academic notions. And I remember really clearly once I mean, we were invited to university to talk with feminist scholars. We couldn't really meet each other, because of our different ways of looking at things

Helen:

Can you tell me a bit about how the Brexit referendum othered these parts of society? What were the kind of the consequences?

Moestak:

Oh, gosh, it was very surreal. I mean, I mentioned in the chapter, that it was sort of like a licence to go and hate, everything that people had the inherited, the racist views and the subtle racism that we know to be in the UK, for that to just come out in the open, now actually “we voted them out now. So you can say whatever, you know, you want to say.” It was a very dark day for a lot of people. But, you know, and a very happy day for a lot of people as well, it was how do those two worlds, how do they collide? So it became very polarised. We couldn't even digest what it was, what did it mean, to a lot of people who were told as you know, we want anti-immigration policies, we want immigrants out. And so they voted for that. It was really surreal in London, that day I was in London, coming back to Bristol, I went to Tesco shopping, and people were looking at me all funny and odd and I didn't want to go outside. I was really scared. I was worried for the children to go to school, a lot of other BAME communities that I know and other ethnic minority communities in the UK felt the same way. There was no support in place, there were no agencies responding, there was no, you know, and hate crime as we know, the figures went sky high. We all knew what the debate was about. But there was nobody to support us and to say, “Well, actually, we're going to make sure that no, minority communities or ethnic minorities are harmed”. And so that whole discourse continues around “immigrants out, we finally got what we wanted”. So it became the win and the lose team, and that whole polarisation continued. And there's a whole community in the middle that are impacted - intercultural families, or partners who are from other European countries or outside of Europe, it was really, really hard. It was awful.

Tove:

Yeah, I think also, there was a lot of practical issues. We’re transnational families so we have different citizenship. I know for Moestaks family that's the case, and children that were born in the UK, but they have a Dutch passport, or they have a Swedish passport. People who have first been refugees in one country and they got European citizenships, and they migrated to the UK, and all the difficulties in getting settled status and especially for women. So women that haven't worked, for example, to just prove that you're actually eligible to, to live in the UK.  There was a lot of kind of local, or community-based support, but it was grassroots really. My daughter was born in the UK, she feels British, but she can't, she can't go and study there. Because she doesn't have the passport. But my son does. So half of my family's British and half of us are not. And I can't come back either. Because I'm not, you know, there's a whole part of you who's just like, okay, that's not there anymore. But it's such a big part of your life.

Helen Beddow  8:50

I actually lived in the Netherlands during the Brexit referendum. So I, I mean, I saw the campaign, but I missed a lot of it. and I think, to go back to what Moestak said, you know, that change in tone, I really noticed that. I came back in 2017 towards the end and I thought when did this happen like I could, I could feel it and hear it. And it was such a sharp contrast

Tove:

I think those of us who really worked on the ground. A lot of people in Bristol I know had already been subject to hate crime. But it also started to… I mean I’m Swedish, but people started thinking I was Polish because I have a name that isn’t British. and I had friends who were kind of verbally abused but Europeans, white Europeans as well. So it's kind of a combination of people who’d never had that kind of experience before. But you could also see it in some of the slight changes in policy - when it came to housing benefits that Europeans couldn't apply for certain things anymore. So it was really it was a gradual thing that happened that was building up towards Brexit, really, over quite few years. But then as Moestak was saying that it was almost like, people thought it was okay to verbalise it, people who might not have done it before.

Moestak:

Then some people like especially politicians who, I guess wanted Brexit, they might say, “Oh, well, there's nothing that we said, it's how people interpreted it”. But again, I mean, there was a real sense of panic, can we still live in the UK? there wasn’t clear guidance around what it actually meant. Nobody knew. I mean, it consumed everything, the radio, the TV, the news, for a few years, I just became Brexit sick, it just consumed everyone and everything in life. And so it was gradual with a drip, drip drip feed, you know, and you could have predicted it. And we knew there was this hostility towards making things difficult, like housing and applying for benefits. And, you know, sanctioning. “Oh, no, sorry. You're not British. You can't.” What do you mean, I'm not British? i mean to say that to somebody just because somebody doesn't have a red little book that says, you know, this is your nationality doesn't mean -  I feel British at heart. You know, how rude to say that, for somebody, you know, customer service point to say “you're not British”. It's quite painful.

Tove:

At SPAN we had like an open door, any single parent who had a problem, they just kind of came to us. And we started seeing more and more parents and this was before Brexit. But they couldn't apply for income support anymore, although they had children under the age of five. So we literally had people who had newborn babies and then they had to actively look for work. And if they failed to make their appointments, they were sanctioned. Women who had been put on to work programme, but they had children that were under five. But they couldn't actually enter the office because those offices, children under five, were not allowed in there. But they had to go to their appointment. And then they were told, well, you can't bring your children and they were like “but have no childcare”. And they were sanctioned. So we have to deal with a lot of issues like that already before Brexit.

Moestak:

But it's little things like putting women in harm's way, if a woman is fleeing domestic violence and in that kind of situation imagine she couldn't turn anywhere. So it kind of made women stay in those relationships. And I think there was one case Tove that I remember that you dealt with, where there was a woman left in a small flat house, her husband brought her over from Sweden, or Norway or one of the Scandinavian countries, and then left her. She had nothing. She had no, nothing, paperwork, anything.

Tove:

And there was another one that I remember really clearly because, again, this thing about women if they hadn't worked, and women that had come to the UK, with their husband, and then there was domestic violence they were kind of fleeing. But then they couldn't leave the country because there was court case. And I remember one woman she was barred from leaving the country, but she couldn't apply for benefits either because she wasn't entitled. And in that particular case, I think even the asylum team or you know, like social services kind of went in, but that was because obviously, we advocated on her behalf. But there were so many people that, you know, they didn't have that opportunity. Because of course, there's not a SPAN everywhere in the UK, where, where there are people who could help with those kinds of issues. Feminism for me is something much more practical and it's about helping, supporting people when they need it and make sure that policies are not disadvantaging women, any women, whatever background they have.

Helen:

What would you both kind of suggest as a key takeaway for policymakers, when dealing with this level of change in the future? What do policymakers need to do differently?

Moestak:

I think for me, engaging with grassroots communities, I mean, is key. Not just lip service, but really co production and collaborating, I guess is for me, the key to it. It's about really transforming policies and services using evidence based and grassroots kind of input and meeting communities half way. Because we know that politicians have difficult jobs, but it's about making sure that they close that gap of those different worlds. A lot of the politicians come from different backgrounds. In fact, I don't know any Somali MP, I know Somali counsellors, but I don't know any members of parliament, but here's quite a large population in Bristol, Birmingham and London and Sheffield and other Cardiff and other areas. There's no one representing our voice and our experience within Westminister. So therefore, it's really important that they have our input, and we create that knowledge together and those policies together and collaborate – it’s about listening to those communities. And you know, giving that grassroots voice a real voice, and putting that knowledge back into those communities and to be able to action that work themselves.  I worked on the Life chances project with Sue and Tove, and we went to Westminster, I went to a briefing on poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was, there was the MP who was I guess, the chair, for the all party parliamentary group at that point, the elected member who was there, they listened to our voices, and I was able to do something different for the first time, you know, I was able to really get my voice heard, which I've never done before. But also it left a huge amount of skills with me, it changed my life around, it gave me other opportunities of jobs, you know, that I could then use to help me progress in my career. And that kind of impact that, you know, coming out of poverty, I guess, you know, going into becoming a working class. It has huge ramifications, and on somebody, so allowing communities to have the opportunity to have those experiences. And that is really the key that politicians have to listen to communities.

Helen:

Do you think there are different channels of communication with those groups than what they currently they use at the moment?

Moestak:

Absolutely, for example, like around gender violence, believe it or not, police go to community leaders, all politicians go to community leaders, and who are, they’re often men who don't represent the woman's voice. So it's very interesting that, you know, those systems are not in place, the actual grassroots voices are missing. For me, there's no platforms and mechanisms to even get the right people on board. Again, it's about having the agency as well, not every woman will want to sit down with a politician or, you know, you need to have things in place. In SPAN, we always had real good engagement, we had a safe space, there's so much you know, you need to have culturally appropriate kind of sensitive approaches. We have, you know, people who spoke the same language, we had food, build trust, we did storytelling, we used arts as a mode of communication, there's so many different approaches of engagement. There isn't just a single thing, and for each community and group it’s different but for women its - In SPAN we often used to bring sometimes politicians or elected members or people who are in a vested interest to meet with the women. Not everyone spoke so we needed to facilitate that and facilitation was key.

Tove:

From the financial crash in 2008, and again when I talk I say that there's been gradual change, sometimes we feel that, oh, something just changed like that. And it's very drastic. But when you worked on the ground, and you saw… I was responsible for the funding, and the funding landscape changed, and it became much more difficult for smaller, grassroots organisations to actually keep running, big organisations came in, they were scooping up contracts. And that was enabled by government policy. I don't think that what the value in an organisation like SPAN can actually offer, not only to the women or the children, the people that came to our services and a few men, we did have a few men as well, but people who came to our services, but also what we could actually offer politicians and decision makers, because we were somehow that link between people who were really living in very marginalised and difficult position. And also, when I think increasingly when the welfare reform made people having to do a lot more, people became a lot busier, people didn't have time to mobilise or do the kinds of things that we were able to do. It's still really important that somebody is kind of picking that up on their behalf and bringing that to the policymakers, even if they can't do it themselves organisations like SPAN could, because we were so close to people and they trusted us. Because we got, we had an opportunity to get to know each other in that safespace . Sometimes researchers need people like that -  those of us who are working on the ground and who were extinct keepers, and if organisations like like, the grassroots organisations, that could build those bridges, if they are no longer there, who is going to build the bridge.

Moestak:

It goes back to that whole multiculturalism concept and how I guess people say multiculturalism is failing, but it depends on your definition of you know, is multiculturalism is it the fact that Indian takeaway or Chinese is number one in the UK or, you know, the fact that, you know, or is multiculturalism really the fact that you celebrate diversity, where communities are living in a cohesive society side by side where people can share culture. And multiculturalism, I guess, In this whole Brexit debate has become… that whole debate, you know, multiculturalism has failed in the UK actually, it hasn't. Because, you know, I think it's really important to say and turn that back upside down on its head and say actually, nobody really attempted to stop that in a strong way and really challenge that because the reality is, there are people who live all over the world who are British, and there are people who from all over the world who live in the UK. So multiculturalism actually for the world is actually a really important thing. And to say that that is failing, you know, that's, that's just giving up on humanity really.

In Holland, I think things are very different. I mean, Holland is very upfront with its its history and its roots in the Dutch Antilles and Suriname you know, the the whole colonisation and the fact that their roots and the ties that they have with these communities is very different to what's happened in the UK for example, Windrush -  it’s how are we allowing this to happen, allowing politicians to create that narrative? Where is the scrutiny, I mentioned that in the chapter that I feel like this, no one really holding anyone to accountable. And I feel like for me, I feel very let down. So I have actually three children, two are British and one is Dutch. She was born here in Bristol, she’s 15 now my daughter. You know, I just managed to get my settled status. But I had to do a separate application for her because it was just so complicated to do it all in one, her father is not in the country. It's just so difficult to sort it all out. One of the obstacles that I faced and what took me so long is my date of birth issue. And I mentioned in the chapter x x x x and just a year, imagine, they couldn't link up all my DWP and tax and everything. And I’ve been living in this country  since 2000, they couldn't link it up. Because when I was inputting my date of birth, I was putting xXxX and the year, but they wouldn't allow me to put 27th of March, which is what I use, it was really difficult.

Tove:

Coming back to what politicians can do differently, I think, a lot of people who haven't had to deal with those kinds of issues like what Moestak is describing now, but the kind of complications of having moved, or having come as a refugee having had maybe the wrong date of birth, or you know, whatever it is, you know, it might just be a name that is spelled in a different way, how that can just make your life so complicated and difficult.

Helen:

I cannot imagine some of the bureaucratic admin type hoops that people have to jump through. And other countries have their own rules like you know, in Holland, in the Netherlands, you can only have a Dutch passport. You can't have dual passports unless you were born with dual nationality  Moestak, I assume that you can't apply for British citizenship without giving up your Dutch citizenship?

Moestak:

Yes, exactly. And that for me is absolutely awful. I'm not prepared to give up my Dutch citizenship. So for me, what was really direct action for me that really made me happy, it was challenged that children wouldn't have to pay the fee to apply for settled status. Again, I have a child who was born here, She's 15 - I can’t afford it. But I still don't know what it means. Can I apply for it now? Will I still be charged? There's no information. And sometimes it's so busy, especially if you have language barriers, and you really need that information in black and white, accessible, people need to be told you don’t have to pay for the fee, go and apply. And this is where you apply. And this is how you apply. Because that court case was won now, but actually in a years time that can be overturned or the government can put things in place where they can start charging people again, if there's a window of opportunity, where do we get that information from? because contacting, you know, the home office or the passport office It's not as easy and straightforward. This happened when people fled war,l so my family -  I don't have direct aunties and uncles. I don't have my grandparents. I don't have that privilege that people have that their mother can pick up the children from school twice a week. No, I don’t have that -  it’s me against the world, me and my children against the world that's how I feel the only support system will be the friends that I've made, which is a family that I created for myself, because the truth is, people came here you know, displaced. We are displaced communities, who didn't come here with extended family, those family that people do have, are now going to be again displaced because of this

Tove:

 The issue that Moestak is talking about, about having one child, because they changed the law. So after Moestak’s daughter was born and my daughter, they changed the legislation, which then made it possible our younger children to be British. Then what that means is that one child  was born during a time where they could not do that. it's that thing of like adding another you know when you were talking about how communities were othered. And I think it's just - especially more disadvantaged community that were already struggling… Doing their best and really trying to live a life -  it’s just adding another layer of stress, of trauma that people have to deal with, which is completely unnecessary. And at the end of the day, I don't think that people realise that it's going to affect the whole society .

Helen:

It really does show what affect policy has when it's translated into like, practical consequences. And every time they close a door to a pathway or a mechanism to give you security, to give people what they need, every door that they close, like you say, has this kind of negative consequence. What's the biggest thing that I guess policymakers, or people just listening anyway, could do in the next 18 months that could help mitigate some of these impacts of Brexit on women?

Moestak: 

There are communities thinking that Brexit already happened, that it's too late to apply. There’s people thinking that, “oh, I won’t get it” or “it’s COVID, the clock is on pause” or something like that. There are also people impacted because of COVID to apply for the settle status, for example, people are not going to meet the deadline. And I'll tell you a funny thing, I actually got the evidence, I want to laminate my piece of paper that I got from child benefit. I asked, I contacted child benefits for proof of child benefits to show them basically that I've been, you know, in receipt. And you know, when you apply for child benefits in this country, you always send the birth certificate. So they have the actual registered name of the child, the parent, everything, all three of my children, they came back with wrong spelling's and wrong date of birth. How they did that? it wasn't even mixing it up with other children or whatever, it was literally spelling my daughter's name wrong. Then having one number different. It was almost like bullying on purpose. And guess how long I waited, I waited almost three months for that piece of paper. And now - that that was last year, now that it's COVID, it might even take longer. So how people make the date for the 6th of June 2021 to apply for their unsettled status, I don't understand. It needs to be delayed, it needs to be pushed back. The system's, you know, workforce is not in full effect. And you have to wait for paperwork longer, you might not be able to go to your bank and ask for little things that before that they were able to do like sending you years of bank statements. Banks open 10 o'clock close at 2.  We are living in a pandemic. So for me, I think number one is delaying the closing date for people to apply. The only other thing I wanted to mention is that just an inquir- y when something happens really bad, Windrush had an inquiry and recommendations that come out of it. There might be a little bit of need of lessons to learn because I think even though we've got our settled status, I've got mine now, I’m still waiting my daughters, there is still impact on familes. Because at one point, some point I'm gonna have to choose and decide what do I do? Do I apply for British and even if I wanted to, I don't have a date of birth. So I still I'm gonna face….  get politicians to have an inquiry into how Brexit impacted EU citizens and nationals in the UK.

Tove:

 And also I really think this whole thing about women who haven't worked, who might be at stay at  home mums and become single parents, that’s something - I  would be part of that kind of inquiry. To add to this more generally, but it is also to try to mobilise and offer that kind of practical support and that more of a local …  and I know that in Bristol there have been people that have tried to do that. But of course, with COVID everything much more complicated and that needs to be recognised. I think what all of this is showing is how complicated it is. And they should know this. They had this experience before with Universal Credit. But it also shows some kind of disregard for human beings, like dehumanisation, really and that's quite concerning.

Moestak:

And it's like little things like - I can't get a mortgage because of date of birth.  I can't buy the house. But I'm gonna have to wait until the children grow up and get and get it themselves. In my lifetime unless I get a date of birth. I won't be able to have it.  I hate travelling, really embarrassed with people to travel with me as well. Because what happens is, they will have to wait for me in custom to explain - they don't understand it, it’s not very common. We had a session with a human rights lawyer and he said, “You're denied an identity. Actually you could take the Dutch government to court and get compensation. And I'm happy to represent you if you want”. But I was just too scared, I would only dream of taking any government to court, that’s a huge beast to take on for the small person that I am. I would never dream of it regardless of - I feel like that will cause me so much problems or they might even take it off me. You never know, they might even say, “you know what, we'll leave you stateless. How about that?”  you know, even though I was offered that support, I didn't take it but it was apparently you're denied an identity, if you don't have a date of birth.

Helen:

Also the stress of having to do that, it's very easy for people to say “oh just challenge it” but the stress that would come into your life from taking the Dutch government to court

Moestak:

again, this is part of the work that we did at SPAN, it's about being resilient to that. Being able to thrive in that environment. And I mean, even the race disparity report that came out and said “UK is not racist. It's the best country for, you know, black women to live in”, like, you know, yeah, right. You know, and then it was down to our ambition, or our kind of lack of ambition, I guess. And it's like, well, we live in a state of constant kind of fear and mental health is impacted. And the way I explain to my children, the racism, as I said, “we're the chosen people”, you have to turn it into process everything into positivity, if you don't, it will wear you down. We say we're the chosen people, it's like, for me to turn negative into positive. You know, it's not that I'm saying that we're superior, or we're better than anybody else. It's just that me trying to justify and explain in a positive way, why we have it more difficult than other people.

Tove:

If I would say, you know, what feminist activism should be for me, it is about collective empowerment. And it is about offering those kind ofspaces where we do this in practice, where we can just by being and by showing. Everybody is worthy as a human being, and everybody's welcome. By offering that kind of safe environment you are much stronger together than you are on your own.

Helen:

Thank you both, That was an absolutely fascinating conversation.

The United Kingdom is a union of four countries, and two of them voted to stay in the European Union during the 2016 referendum. We're seeing the fallout of that now in two very different contexts. In Northern Ireland, we've seen the Good Friday peace agreement threatened by the resurgence of violence and unrest. In Scotland, the question of independence is once again at the forefront of Scottish politics. What does this mean for women in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Emma Ritch:

Hi, I'm Emma Ritch director engender which is a feminist policy advocacy organisation working in Scotland.

Lynn Carville:

Hi, I'm Lynn Carville, chair of the Northern Ireland Women's Budget Group, and chief executive of Women's Tech, which is a training and education organisation for women and non-traditional skills based in North Belfast.

Helen:

So how did you both get involved in feminist activism and why is it so important to you?

Emma: 

I guess I started at school advocating to get period products into the girls loos, instead of having to queue up at the office and ask the school secretary in front of people who have forgotten their dinner money, and then carried on really. I volunteered at rape crisis alongside my first proper job and then I guess my curiosity, my interest, drew me further into feminist organisations and work, and the reason it is important to me, I think, is because women's lives are still so constrained by patriarchy. And so our freedom to create a more beautiful world really needs us to dismantle the interlocking oppressions of gender, race and class.

Lynn:

I grew up in very much a rural environment, and went to when I went to university, I went to Belfast and studied sociology and social policy politics. And it was during one of my social policy classes when we were learning about social welfare, and the welfare state and how it was created. I just couldn't believe the way that women and men were treated differently in all of this and how it’s very much established on the basis of men, and the head of household, and I was completely blown away by this. And from that, it just hasn't stopped. When welfare reform happened, I was absolutely and totally re energised around how women were losing their incomes and still continue to do it.  I always say  you can't unknow what you know. So it does take up so much energy, but I love seeing the younger women coming along and picking up on different strands. But picking it apart even further than what we did and still, I'm learning, it's fantastic. I’ve got two daughters, and they have to be living in a society that's equal and doesn't discriminate against them just because they're girls. We’ve a long way to go.

Helen: 

What's really important about your book and your chapter is it did discuss the devolved nations you know there's not been a lot of focus on say Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland in our Brexit debate, And there's been quite a sharp show of ignorance from some of our government members about the devolved nations. What threats does Brexit pose for inclusive policy for women?

Emma:

I mean gender mainstreaming is a really pretty radical idea that we should bring feminist analysis inside policymaking and legislating. And I think that speaks to exactly what Lynne was describing in terms of women just being at the margins of all of the decisions that are made about, about life. So everything that public bodies should do, should take account as a distinct needs of women and girls and also consider our equality with men and boys. Stepping outside of Europe means that our equality law and specifically the Equality Act 2010 and it’s public sector equality mainstreaming duty, no longer have the backstop of European law. And so we're very concerned that that means that the Equality Act could potentially evaporate away, that the public sector equality duty, as limited as it in its operations in England, Wales and Scotland could go, and that would mean public bodies having less accountability for not making decisions that take account of women and girls needs. We’re really concerned about that regression, so we've been advocating for the incorporation of CEDOR and for other women's rights standards like the Istanbul Convention in order not to see women's rights roll further back.

Lynn:

I’m tired of hearing my own voice saying this but it's important for context, you know, - Northern Ireland is different. I wish It wasn’t, but it really really is. Issues around gender, gender equality, anything to do with anything that is progressive or just trying to move us forward as a society, as always, come second to the constitutional issue. That is what Brexit has done in Northern Ireland. It's taken a while to get peace here, it's taken a while to get a devolved assembley. When Brexit happened, we didn't have an assembly, so we had civil servants who were speaking on our behalf and not political representatives. You can be absolutely sure that any kind of progression in terms of gender equality or issues that we needed to be addressed were not at the table at that. So the constitutional issue has been brought very much to the fore. It was either going to be nationalist, or unionist. It was always a zero sum game. Being part of the European Union, lifted everybody to allow another identity that wasn't nationality as such but it allowed us to be above, and just lift ourselves above the ground, where it’s nationalist or unionist. Once Brexit happened that was removed, I mean, as I said, we're seeing the outworkings of that today so.

Women from urban areas have been unequivocal on how Brexit has the potential, the potential to reignite the conflict. And that's exactly what happened. I mean, we knew this, we knew this in 2016.  And that's the bit that I don't understand. So, today, my colleague Emma from Scotland has just informed me from Scotland, that our First Minister has resigned or will be resigning at the end of May, and that is very much as a consequence of Brexit, and the protocol. So, everything, everything we thought was going to happen is happening, but all of this, most unfortunately just overrides, anything to do with gender equality or mainstreaming, or any of those issues.

Helen:

And I know that women have been heavily involved in like the peace process and in reparations in peacebuilding perhaps

Lynn: 

Peacebuilding absolutely. All of our work, that always forms a part of it. You can see where everybody's just put back - we've got COVID, a pandemic never mind everything else, so women are back in the house.  Back in their homes, back at the kitchen sinks back caring, and who are our voices? It’s men who are putting forward their views on how best to move forward, which means we're moving backwards.

Emma:

I think Helen you alluded to the fact that Westminster is often quite blind when it comes to considering the needs of devolved nations. I think it's been particularly shocking to witness from Scotland's just how much of a lack of consideration has been given to the situation in Northern Ireland and the questions around the border. I think there's been a real downplaying of those by Westminster politicians and I think that's placed women at real risk of harm and we're now seeing some of the results of that imperviousness and wilful turning away in the consequences this summer for women and girls.

Helen:

Yeah, I can't get over how careless, we have been with Northern Ireland,

Lynn: 

It's very much an afterthought, you know I do, I do think that. And it makes me think but you're saying that makes me think about, you know, because I still haven't got my head around how Brexit actually happened in the first place.  People with nothing, and with nothing to lose voted for Brexit, and I will fully I fully will contend that lies were told and all of that, but you know that the issue here in Northern Ireland is there are many many people with nothing to lose. There's just very high levels of disadvantage because we've never normalised as a society and the money isn't flowing into communities the way that it should be to build people up, and there is an absolute leadership vacuum, and I also contend that, so it's a recipe for disaster.

Helen Beddow:

In the chapter, you talk about the Rural Women's voice, the impressive work of the Rural Women's Group in, in being that voice to kind of Brexit influencers and decision-makers. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Lynn:

During those dark days of having no government here, and Brexit was happening to us, the Democratic Unionist Party were our only MPs in Westminster. And there was one sole voice, Northern Ireland actually voted to remain in The European Union, who is Lady Sylvia Herman who was the only voice, to say something different than “Leave” and this kind of pursuance of a hard Brexit. And in the midst of all this women's organisations really came to the fore, I mean we never stopped. So the Northern Ireland rural womens network, absolutely, totally under resourced, and has been for years and a small part time team. I mean, I've been spoken to Louise, who is the director there, we were talking about how she got the strength, I think, and the courage to actually speak on behalf of a women. She said “ we are a membership organisation. so that's what we do and we got mandate from our groups - the border area is rural, the border area is impoverished and it's rural.” When she met with Michel Barnier back in the day I don't know, maybe 2016, 2017, and the first words he said was, “I'm so glad to meet some women, because everywhere I go, it's men”. And that's the truth, and it's still the truth, because all the different committees that are set up now Emma, you will see very very few women involved in this. So, the strength came from her members, and the strength came from people's lived lives and lived realities and not some constitutional question that's up here. So they were very very powerful and had a very very powerful voice.

And other issues that happened during that time. There's been an ongoing struggle for reproductive rights to be realised in Northern Ireland. Believe it or not, not dissimilar to Brexit has been a political football between Westminster and the DUP for many many years. So Westminster legislated for abortion in Northern Ireland, but believe it or not, we still do not have it, and it still is not realised, but there's an, there's an ongoing fact that - the grassroots organisation ran that was absolutely incredible. And again, with the help from across five nations Equal Marriage, was another thing that that passed. There were little rays of sunshine that in the chaos, in the madness that grassroots groups were fighting for and mobilised on the ground. I'm smiling because I remember the joy on both those occasions.

Helen:

I think that's a really good point about there being less women in the room in Northern Ireland because you know, in Scotland, actually we've got, You know, Nicola Sturgeon and quite a lot of Scottish MPs, is that right Emma?

Emma:

Yes certainly, there's more, there's more equal representation in the parliament, I would describe it as a really different polity than Northern Ireland I think there's, there's not that resistance to women's equality and rights that there seems to be baked into almost how the Northern Irish parliament and government work and operate. So, we see much more enthusiasm for equality and rights, but obviously less space to act, than the Westminster government and parliament and so the devolution question always really important in terms of how things happen, and how that energy of the grassroots that Lynn was describing translates into law and policy.

Helen:

I think something I wonder how much Brexit changed people's opinions on the referendum, and what they voted previously?

Emma:

I mean I think women on all points of the scale from being very enthusiastic about independence to wanting to stay within the United Kingdom. So I think there isn't one single feminist view on that. I think, Women's Equality and Rights is possible under any constitutional arrangement. I guess what the role is for organisations like Engender is to respond to what the political reality is and make the best possible arguments for women's equality rights, whatever is happening with the Constitution, But I think the polling shows that lots of different groups in different ways. So for some people Brexit made them much more enthusiastic about independence, but one of the things we were told during the referendum campaign was that independence would mean leaving Europe. And so, they are questions that are bound up together. As I think is the kind of question for me on the extent to which women who were involved in the two campaigns in completely different ways. So in terms of Brexit very few women engaged with the discussion, which actually wasn't much of a discussion in Scotland because all of the political parties here backed remaining in Europe, even the Scottish conservatives, So it was quite different than the independence campaign which saw women really energised to take part in the political discussion for those years that led up to the vote.

Helen:

Yeah I think something that was missing a lot from the discussion, anywhere, was the potential for this to kind of erode the Human Rights Act, and our commitment to human rights and I know that's something the EU is very concerned about.

Lynn:

Clearly, you know, none of those discussions took place. I don't remember any discussions around anything that actually was true or mattered. It was “take back control”, which was just three words, and there was nothing else. Without having a space to discuss, all this shut down discussion. So never mind that things that actually mattered to citizens across the board. There is, you know, on the back of what Emma says like, for me, and my understanding, you know, I know I’m coming from the Northern Ireland context but when Brexit happened, in my completely personal view, it was the end of the Union. When it happened, is one of the first things I thought of I was like, you know, you can go from here to here to here to here, and it’s the end of the union. People here, so people just want Brexit and wants to take back control and think they’ll be closer to Britain, but really that was English nationalism. And so here, people who are middle of the road, and there are so many people -  we live in a beautiful country. We are so lucky. Our quality of life isn't that bad I mean it's, you know, we’ve horrendous things we’ve put up with and still do put up with but, but, the possibilities are endless and it could be brilliant, and people know that here, so we could be together. What Brexit dis was, it was removed that so people are like ”do you know what?  I'm going to be treated better if economically we have united, Ireland, at least in some way”, so people who wouldn’t even countenance that, not really and wanted to do something here, have been pushed in that direction.

Helen:

That's really interesting, because it's not discussed like that's not even a consideration I think for Westminster. So, this is a question for both of you. What do you think the most important things women in the devolved nations can do over the next one to two years that can hopefully mitigate some of the impact of Brexit on women?

Lynn:

I mean, I think the most important thing we can always do is work together and keep our eyes on the things that are important to us justice, equal pay. Freedom from violence, all of the all the issues that feminist women have worked together for forever to advance the cause of, I think specifically, we are really looking at the incorporation of CEDOR in Scotland, which is one of the things which the previous Scottish Government has committed to. So once the election is passed, we'll see if that's likely to be a prospect for the, the new Scottish Parliament.

We've seen women really shoved out of the room during the Brexit discussion. And so, we would want to see women included in all of the decision making that is happening. And I think some of the issues that are going to be quite new to us as we navigate the post Brexit world, are things about trade, how will women be advanced or not by trade? and the answers to those questions. Climate justice is obviously massively on the agenda with COP 26 taking place this year in Scotland, and so how can women be involved in the international conversations that are happening around Britain's place in the world and what that looks like? That will ultimately have an impact on women's lives and safety and economic stability and the economic success of our communities and families.

Lynn:

I would say there are no silver linings to Brexit as far as I'm concerned, but if there was to be one. It is, it has been greater collaboration I think across the four nations, and indeed the five nations. We've kind of moved out of, you know our kind of devolved – the devolved really really matters but that kind of working together and collaborating has been important and has a better place than what it had before. Unfortunately, and what we have expected, and we are going to have to deal with violence, again, I'll be absolutely sure it's not over. I'd say we have a very difficult summer in front of us, and maybe even more long term than that. So when that happens, it's women in the communities that really, really try and pull this back. A lot of effort is going to be in local communities, trying to deal with that so it's a little bit of a different context for us, but at the same time the other womens organisations that are working on a kind of strategic level,  I think that collaboration around - a lot of work happening around sexual harassment bans against women equal pay and women's representation and having their voices heard. So all of that there is no doubt that all of that will continue.

Helen:

What factors should have been considered around the devolved nations that were actually ignored in the Brexit process?

Emma: 

I mean, I think, Westminster civil servants and ministers and politicians often seem surprised by is a devolution exists at all. And so we're constantly having to explain, actually no, we've got a distinct legal system, a distinct education system, distinct health service and all of the policy and laws around these things are made in Scotland. So actually, if you're not thinking about the distinctness of Scotland, you're really not designing a kind of political process that Scotland can readily take part in. We found that just didn't happen through the Brexit campaign. It was kind of treated as though the experience across the UK was homogenous, it kind of reflected the way that women are often not considered as a distinct group of people that needs to be thought about and the distinctness of their needs need to be thought about as part of any decision making. And this is not an unfamiliar experience in Scotland, but it really I think it really was perhaps reflected in how little Scotland saw itself in the Brexit conversation and ultimately the result of the vote, in which Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. And really the Brexit that we have experienced has been one that has happened without our Democratic support for it.

Lynn:

Well, I mean, there's probably the crux of the of the of the whole thing really isn't about what’s not been considered. So, first of all, we, you know, in Northern Ireland have very very fragile and young peace process, and there's always a simmering kind of underlying threat of violence or something, you know ,that that's just, that's just over there so that was absolutely and completely ignored. And an international treaty, the Good Friday Belfast agreement. that we have the only, like land border with another jurisdiction that's in the European Union. I don't understand how this could be ignored. To be quite honest, so I think it was maybe ignored but certainly willfully ignored. All it does is put, and all it has done is put pressure on people living here on women and their families. But devolution, is so important and devolution has been so important to the nations in various different ways and that's why I really enjoyed the collaboration, seeing how things are panning out across the different jurisdictions. But what we do see post-Brexit is a real centralization and that's when certainly that's what I'm seeing in terms of policies and control. And more than anything else – Money. England can’t survive by itself, it really really can't so the purse strings are being - the money has been pulled back. I'm interested to see what happens with the new structural funds, and everything has been all of this has been, it might be different in Scotland and Wales, but it's certainly been centralised and it's not been devolved to Northern Ireland. It will be interesting to see how this, how this actually pans out to reduce and rollback on devolution and where that leads everything to. I mean Northern Ireland was just ignored, I actually think it's criminal, what happened that's absolutely criminal, and as I said, the fallout is still happening and will continue to happen.

Emma:

Obviously, there's a difference between an international treaty in the form of the Good Friday Agreement being ignored, and like an actual post conflict situation being ignored compared to like Scotland's situation. So like what happened in Northern Ireland was an absolute disgrace and someone should be in front of the tribunal. The kind of democratic exclusion of Scotland I would not at all compare with the situation in Northern Ireland where a fragile peace process was ignored, the context of the Good Friday Agreement was completely ignored, the promises to Northern Ireland that have gone on and been ignored for decades around the Northern Irish Bill of Human Rights, ignored again. I think that that is far more disturbing to me than the situation with Scotland.

Lynn:

 Brexit was good for no one. I absolutely take on your sister solidarity, and that's why the collaboration on our work, you know that lifts us out of our devolved -  which is important – but lifts inside of our devolved spaces is very, very important.

Emma:

Yeah, I think if, if anything, the experience of writing the book and reflecting on on life post Brexit compels us to work even more closely together, across the UK and with Ireland also, the five nations. Women coming together have always made the world better and I think on this we can do the same.

Lynn:   

You know, I think we have put a huge burden on our young people and the people are coming after us, but I also really really hope they have the courage to do something about this, and to fix things and to, to change things. I mean when, you know, when we were young, and maybe had more energy in that activism kind of role. that's what we did. The other part of what Brexit has done in Northern Ireland is what Brexit has done to our young people. Stopping them going to Europe for education and travel and all sorts of different things. It's an absolute shame and disgrace, but I really hope that they can pick up this mantle, and really run with it and change it and I think that, you know, I just wish them courage, I really do.

Helen:

Thank you, both of you.

You'll find the link to the activist organisations and to the book below in the show notes. Join us again next episode where we continue looking at the implications of Brexit for women and women's rights.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai