Memorandum submitted by End Violence Against Women (E 15)
1.1 End Violence
Against Women (EVAW) is the largest coalition of individuals and organisations
of its kind in the
1.2 EVAW warmly welcomes the Equality Bill and believes it represents a real opportunity to create a more equal society for all. We limit our submissions to the new Public Sector Equality Duty, although we recognise that there are other areas of the Bill that have direct relevance to addressing violence against women, such as equal pay.
1.3 We welcome in principle the new Public Sector Equality Duty and believe this is critical for tackling disadvantage and advancing equality across the equality strands. However, we oppose the proposal to extend the second and third limb of the Duty ('fostering good relations' and 'advancing equality of opportunity') to religion or belief as we believe it will undermine equality on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation and race. We also believe this could be interpreted by many public bodies as a duty to promote religion which is not the State's role.
1.4 We have focused these submissions on concerns about the likely impact on women's safety and note that this comes at a time when the Home Office is consulting on a cross-government violence against women strategy[ii]. We believe that the Duty as currently worded would conflict with the intentions behind the strategy for reasons given below.
2 PUBLIC SECTOR EQUALITY DUTY
2.1 The Bill proposes replacing the existing equality duties on gender, race and disability with a single duty covering age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
Clause 143 of the Bill states that a public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to:
Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation
Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it
Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.
Religion or belief and the impact on tackling violence against women
2.2 EVAW supports the first limb of the duty ('eliminating unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation') in relation to all protected characteristics including religion or belief and believe there are many areas where this is necessary, for example tackling discrimination against Muslims in the criminal justice system.
2.3 However, we oppose the inclusion of religion or
belief in the second and third limbs of the duty ('advancing equality of
opportunity' and 'fostering good relations') and note that it is not always
clear whether disadvantage (as distinct from discrimination) is
due to religion or other factors. For example, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women
experience the lowest levels of education, qualification and employment
compared to other women in the
Religion or belief and discrimination
2.4 We do not believe that the religion or belief strand can or should be treated in the same way as the other equality strands. This is partly because, unlike the other strands, it encompasses beliefs and values that are inherently discriminatory, particularly in relation to gender and sexual orientation. This is clearly not the case for all religious belief. However this strand represents a vast range of different beliefs and it is often the more traditional and sometimes reactionary groups that are most effective at mobilization and engaging in debate[iii], and even censoring debate about abuse of power and violence within religious institutions[iv].
2.5 We are concerned that religious groups with little or no experience of violence against women are already regularly consulted and the duty as currently worded may increase pressure on public bodies to accept culturally relativist arguments that women from certain religious backgrounds can be treated differently from other women experiencing abuse.
Violence against women support services
2.6 The Gender and Race Equality Duties play a key role in relation to funding of violence against women support services, such as Rape Crisis Centres, specialist domestic violence projects and support for minority women. For example, Southall Black Sisters' successful High Court challenge against Ealing Council's funding cut last year was partly based on the Race Equality Duty.
2.7 We are very concerned that the religion or belief element of the new duty could have a particularly negative impact on the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women's sector which has expertise in tackling issues such as forced marriage, honour based violence, and addressing issues around immigration, multiple discrimination, language difficulties etc[v]. There is already concern that the community cohesion agenda is eroding the BME women's sector and that faith based organisations with little expertise around women's safety are filling this vacuum. We believe that the duty will increase the demand for public funding of services that prioritise a religious ethos over women's safety or access to essential sexual and reproductive services.
2.8 We also believe the duty will increase demand for
separate processes that prioritise a religious ethos over women's
safety. For example, Ministers and senior judges have endorsed the work of the
Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) which is developing Sharia Courts[vi] in
Girls' access to education and information to prevent abuse
2.9 Schools have a critical role to play in tackling gender inequality and preventing and detecting gender based violence such as child sexual abuse, sexual harassment/bullying, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. They are in a key position to shape healthy attitudes and give information to young people about how to recognise violence and provide access to support and protection. However, there is anecdotal evidence to show that parents from more conservative cultural and religious backgrounds withdraw girls from PSHE classes (where these issues can be raised) on the grounds that it is incompatible with their religious beliefs[viii].
2.10 Furthermore, given the diversity of denominations and interpretations, schools may be reliant on external organisations to provide guidance[ix] on how to tackle different beliefs in relation to abuse, dress codes, sex education, relationships or religious observances. The risk is that it is the more conservative demands that are conceded to which will have a negative impact on children and young peoples' access to information and, in some cases, safety. Our concern, as with all these issues, is that including religion or belief in all three limbs of the duty will exacerbate this.
For further information please contact:
End Violence Against Women Campaign Manager
[ii] Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls, Home Office 2009
[iii] See the volume of responses to the Discrimination Law Review from Christian groups and individuals opposing the extension of the public sector duty to sexual orientation (para 2.55).
[iv] For example the success of Sikh fundamentalists in closing the Behzti play at the Birmingham Rep that portrayed rape in a Sikh temple.
[v] See Map of Gaps: The Postcode Lottery of Violence Against Women Support Services, EVAW and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, January 2009, Also A Matter of Life and Death, Imkaan, September 2008,
[viii] Multiculturalism in
[ix] See for example the Muslim Council of Britain's Guidance on Muslim pupils in state schools, Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools