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Debate is not hate: women won’t be silenced

It is good to see the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the House of Commons Library acknowledge the aggression of the public discussion around proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and for both to make statements supporting the importance of debate and freedom of expression.

The EHRC says:

Need for a tolerant debate

The divisive nature of the current debate means that some people feel they need to withdraw from discussions due to the strength of opposition to their views and the toll it takes on their mental health.

We must build an environment where the issues raised by GRA reform can be freely discussed, in an atmosphere of tolerance, dignity and respect. There will always be strong views and differences in opinion and this is the sign of a healthy democracy. But that must stop when it turns into speech that incites aggression or violence. The only way to ensure all our rights are protected in the long-term is to ensure we try to understand each other’s perspective.

We will continue to use our evidence base and listen to the views on all sides to understand the potential impact of reforms.”

The House of Commons library says:

“Concerns have also been raised that there has been intimidation of those organising and attending meetings to consider the Government’s proposals, and that debate has been stifled.”

Here is a reminder of what the Government guidance said about the importance of the widest possible participation in the GRA consultation in 2018:

“We also want to be clear that this is an explorative consultation and we do not have all the answers. That is why, as we consult, we are mindful of the need to engage with all perspectives. We particularly want to hear from women’s groups who we know have expressed some concerns about the implications of our proposals. To be clear – this consultation focuses on the Gender Recognition Act; we are not proposing to amend the Equality Act 2010 and the protections contained within it. We do realise, however, that there are concerns about interactions between the two Acts and we want to use this consultation as a way of gathering these views.”

Despite this aim being clearly stated in the GRA consultation guidance, women asking questions or expressing concerns about the proposed changes have been subject to abuse, complaint, threat, intimidation, ostracization and violence.

Since November 2017, Woman’s Place UK has organised 27 public events and nearly every one has been hosted in the face of substantial obstacles including aggressive and intimidating protests.

The intimidation of women meeting to discuss their rights has gone largely unchallenged and so has been allowed to grow. The failure of civic and political society to facilitate this important debate demonstrates an abject failure to adhere to the Equality Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty.

As we said in our submission to the government consultation on the GRA:

“The failure to properly facilitate a respectful and evidence-based approach has created a toxic debate which has left people on all sides feeling victimised. It has meant that women and others wishing to discuss the issues have been left to organise themselves in what have been threatening and dangerous circumstances. This is completely unacceptable and government needs to reflect seriously on the way it has managed this consultation and take steps to improve the way future consultations are carried out.”

All political parties have a big job to rebuild the respect and engagement of women voters in our democracy.”

So concerned were we about the climate for women in public debate that we made this submission to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As part of our  response, we said:

“WPUK contends that the civil and political rights enshrined in the ICCPR have been undermined in recent years, particularly in relation to women’s freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The relevant government bodies, such as the Government Equalities Office, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have failed to take action to defend women’s civil and political rights. In some cases, the police have been overzealous in policing feminist and ‘gender critical’ users of online platforms such as Twitter.”

The consultation process around the GRA has exposed the flaws in our democratic structure and the many ways in which women’s voices continue to be ignored, denigrated and silenced.

Whatever the detail of the Government’s announcement on the GRA, Woman’s Place is committed to ensuring that women’s voices are heard in public debate and in all policy making decisions.

16th July 2020

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