Advancing women's rights into the 21st century

To honour International Women’s Day, Judge & Priestley has produced three articles looking at the struggle to overcome discrimination and to create a more equal society. In this second piece, we look at how despite landmark legal shifts in the 1960s and 1970s, women still didn’t enjoy full equal rights, meaning more change was needed as we entered the new millennium.

The second half of the 20th century witnessed significant improvement in women’s rights in the UK, with landmark legislation paving the way for greater equality and opportunity. However, as the new millennium dawned, women still faced discrimination and so there was still much ground to cover in the pursuit of gender parity and inclusivity. This led to major new laws.

The Human Rights Act 1998

At the cusp of the new millennium, the Human Rights Act 1998 marked a pivotal moment in the protection of fundamental freedoms and liberties, including those relating to women. By incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, the Act provided a robust framework for safeguarding individual rights, irrespective of gender. Among other things, it provided a framework for women to challenge public bodies if they believed they had been treated unfairly. For example, women gained the right to challenge the National Health Service if they felt their health care was inadequate or discriminatory. A woman could also hold the police to account if they failed to protect her, for example, in a domestic abuse case. The Act laid the groundwork for further advancements in women’s rights, setting a precedent for legislative action aimed at promoting equality and justice for all.

Sexual Offences Act 2003

This landmark legislation expanded definitions of sexual violence, introduced new offences to address emerging forms of abuse, and placed greater emphasis on securing justice for victims. Crucially, it focussed on the need for consent in sexual relationships and broadened the definition of sexual assault to include intentionally touching someone in a sexual way. The Act is often associated with protecting children from abuse, but it also provided greater protections for women and promoted a culture of respect and consent in all aspects of sexual relationships.

Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 introduced several measures to provide women with greater protection, such as making the breach of a non-molestation order a criminal offence and giving judges the power to impose restraining orders as part of sentences. The Act introduced measures to enhance support services for victims and raise awareness of the impact of domestic abuse on individuals and communities.

Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 represented a comprehensive effort to combat discrimination and promote equality across various domains, including employment, education, and public services. By consolidating and harmonising existing laws, the Act provided a robust legal framework for addressing discrimination based on gender, race, disability, and other protected characteristics. Importantly, the Act extended protection to include characteristics such as pregnancy and maternity, recognising the unique challenges faced by women in the workplace and society at large.

Domestic Abuse Bill 2021

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2021 represents a significant step towards addressing the scourge of domestic abuse and violence, which continues to impact countless women across the UK. It created a statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also be emotional, controlling or coercive behaviour, and economic abuse. It also prohibited perpetrators from cross-examining their victims in person in the civil and family courts in England and Wales and extended the controlling or coercive behaviour offence to cover post-separation abuse. In recognition of the rising problem with social media, it extended the offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress, known as the “revenge porn” offence, to cover threats to disclose such material. This landmark legislation also provided new protection orders, enhanced support services, and improved legal remedies for survivors.

Progress has been made but there’s still more to do. The journey towards gender equality in the UK has been marked by remarkable progress and transformative legislative reforms, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century.

However, despite these advancements, challenges remain, and the fight for women’s rights continues unabated. In our third article, as we mark International Women’s Day, we shall look at what remains to be done if women are to achieve full equality.

Please click here to read the third article for International Women's Day

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