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Women’s rights hang in the balance in the EU referendum – and not just workplace rights. Either outcome may lead to reforms (initiated by men) extending or deepening austerity measures that most acutely impact upon, and potentially infringe the rights of, women and children.

The possible costs of Brexit include further austerity and inequality. In turn, austerity has separately been linked with discrimination against women, equality-stagnation, and violations of children’s rights. Taken together, these findings suggest that it is misguided to talk of the costs to the economy as per household. The burdens are unlikely to be fairly shared out, with disproportionate burdens expected to be shouldered by women and children. These may even be unlawful.

There have been a variety of economic forecasts, and even meta-analyses, of the forecasts to try to help explain which to trust. While a few studies dissent, commentators have noted a startling degree of consensus that Brexit would lead to economic costs at least in the short term.

This has led the Institute for Fiscal Studies to warn of a risk of an extra two years of austerity on Brexit – a risk which Vote Leave’s Iain Duncan Smith argued would be worth it for the sake of extricating ourselves from the EU.  The BBC ‘Reality Check’ concluded that while the IFS’s predictions of an extra two years relied on assumptions that might not be borne out ‘it is hard to imagine that lower GDP growth would not affect the public finances, requiring spending to be cut further, taxes to be increased or the period of austerity to be extended’.

The National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently showed that if Brexit leads to further austerity measures, using benefit cuts to plug anything from 25-100% of the extra fiscal gap, they would impact most heavily upon low income households, and particularly acutely upon working lone parent families. Lone parents are disproportionately (around 90%) women.

Austerity policies have already discriminated dramatically against women – so much that that the Fawcett Society filed for a judicial review of the government’s 2010 budget. Research by the House of Commons found that in the 2010 budget, 73% of the cuts in public expenditure fell on women. Focussing on welfare law reforms, Figures vary, with some estimates putting the proportion of UK welfare cuts coming out of women’s pockets as high as 85% or over 90%.

And the UN has just concluded that disadvantaged children in the UK have been disproportionately hit by austerity measures. This could breach our duties under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN noted that the legal prohibition on placing families in temporary accommodation needed stricter enforcement, in light of increased family homelessness, and drew attention to the need to monitor food security of children, including reliance on foodbanks (the number of child foodbank users has rocketed from 46 000 in the financial year 2011-12 to 416 000 in 2015-16). The Committee stated that it was ‘seriously concerned’ that recent fiscal policies in the UK were ‘contributing to inequality in children’s enjoyment of their rights’ and ‘disproportionately affecting children in disadvantaged situations’.

Austerity hits women in other ways, too. The shrinking of the public sector has a disproportionate effect upon women, since it is a significant source of female employment. In 2010 49% of all employed women in the UK were employed in the public services, compared to 19.5% of all men. It also promotes female professionalization – 64% of all employed women with tertiary education were employed in the public services (compared to 31.9% of employed men with tertiary education).

A ‘Remain’ vote hardly puts us in the clear. The EU has encouraged us all onto the austerity path, so these issues echo EU-wide. Remaining would stave off an immediate “brexterity” policy, but might mean that we are urged to fall in line with EU measures responding to crises, shaping ‘sound fiscal policies’ or ‘correcting’ excessive deficits, triggering the same disproportionate impact concerns. The UK has already been subject to the ‘excessive deficit procedure’ and the European Commission responded to the June 2010 budget – the one that proved so punitive to women that it inspired a judicial review application – by positively reporting the planned ‘expenditure efficiency’ and stating that the ‘new mandate’ was a ‘clear improvement’.

But neither a Remain nor a Leave vote should be taken as a mandate for austerity-as-usual. On the contrary, there are indications that this referendum has been influenced by bigger discontents with recent fiscal policies. Both sides have been arguing that their outcome would lead to more spending on public services and specifically the NHS.

Moreover, a Brexit vote would not absolve us from international legal obligations. The UN’s recent criticism of the UK casts doubt on the lawfulness of aggressively inegalitarian, discriminatory cuts. The IMF has warned against further austerity, as making society more unequal.

In light of this, we need both EU referendum sides to set out proposals that avoid inflicting further damage upon women and children. How would the UK respond to an economic shock in the case of Brexit? In the case of Remain, how tethered would the UK be to future EU fiscal recommendations?

Without answers voters must simply guess which ‘side’ is less likely to respond to risk in a way that penalises low-income households, and women and children in particular. Neither side can take the lawfulness of austerity for granted. Domestic and international law cover the basic rights of non-discrimination and the protection of the best interests of children. Austerity is not just economics, and it is not just politics. It is a legal matter, with serious consequences for basic legal rights that cannot – without a careful justification process – simply be written off as a price worth paying for either outcome, since they are key measures of a civilised society.

Charlotte O’Brien is Senior Lecturer at York Law School, University of York.


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