ON International Women’s Day we need to be vigilant against a worldwide backlash against women’s rights.

In July 2023, a joint report to the UN Human Rights Council by the special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, and Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, chair of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, indicated that the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan was the worst globally.

They said: “While the backlash against women’s and girls’ rights has unfolded in different countries and regions in recent years, nowhere else in the world has there been an attack as widespread, systematic, and all-encompassing on the rights of women and girls as in Afghanistan.

“Every aspect of their lives is being restricted under the guise of morality and through the instrumentalisation of religion. The discriminatory and restrictive environment, the climate of fear and the lack of accountability for the wide range of violations documented by the experts in the present report make it impossible for women and girls to exercise their rights, restrains all persons and organisations from defending them, and emboldens further abuses. The pattern of large-scale systematic violations of women’s and girls’ fundamental rights in Afghanistan, abetted by the Taliban’s discriminatory and misogynistic policies and harsh enforcement methods, constitutes gender persecution and an institutionalised framework of gender apartheid.”

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Earlier this week I helped launch “Shattering Women’s Rights, Shattering Lives”, a cross-party parliamentary report which chronicles the oppression of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran and makes some recommendations about what the world and the UK Government can do to tackle it.

The authors of the parliamentary report share the concerns expressed to the UN Human Rights Council. We hope that our recommendations, ranging from enshrining gender apartheid as an internationally recognised crime to the provision of humanitarian visas for Afghan women to come to the UK, will be listened to and acted upon. If not by this UK Government, then by the next.

Whoever that government is, they will also have a big task closer to home.

Last month the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, Reem Alsalem, completed a 10-day visit to the UK. The findings in her preliminary report show that we cannot be complacent when it comes to the protection of women’s rights in the UK, including in Scotland.

Ms Alsalem found that “entrenched patriarchy at almost every level of society, combined with a rise in misogyny that permeates the physical and online world, is denying thousands of women and girls across the UK the right to live in safety, free from fear and violence ... A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK, one in 30 women in the UK are raped or sexually assaulted each year and four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.”

We have heard a lot of outrage recently about high-profile murders but where is the outrage about all these other murdered women and the shocking overall statistics? Those of us who have worked in sectors which seek to combat violence against women and girls (“VAWG”) know that more is needed.

According to Reem Alsalem, while governments across the UK have high ideals, their ability to realise the full potential of their legislation and policies on violence against women is undermined by a number of factors. These include the antipathy of the UK Government towards its international human rights obligations; its general hostility towards human rights, particularly those of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; and the fragmentation of policies on male violence against women and girls across devolved and non-devolved areas.

More is required to translate the political recognition of the scale of violence against women and girls into action. Reem recommends a bringing together of all the different legislative and programmatic strands of intervention on the issue, upgrading and formalising responsibility for discrimination and violence against women and girls in government, anchoring it in human rights commitments, improving co-ordination between all parts of government and with civil society, and committing sufficient resources to translate legislative aspirations into action.

Rather than lumping in women and girls who make up over 50% of the population with “equalities” briefs, she wants to see the creation of a Ministry for Women and Equality with a separate cabinet minister and brief.

She also expressed concern about the degree to which the burden of fighting VAWG is falling on grassroots organisations and specialised frontline service providers working with women and girls who fall through the cracks, and are not covered by statutory service providers. Such organisations face a struggle to survive in the context of rising living costs, a deepening housing crisis and a critical lack of funding.

She was particularly scathing about the UK Government’s policy of NRPF – no recourse to public funds for migrants – which has accelerated situations of destitution, homelessness and vulnerability for many migrant women and girls. She recommends its immediate abolition.

Reem also highlighted the long-standing lack of adequate disaggregated data, including by sex, gender, ethnicity and disability, and the emphasis on sex – and gender-neutral approaches in the design and implementation of interventions as key challenges hampering effective monitoring and progress.

Her report reminds everyone that discrimination on the grounds of sex and sexual orientation are prohibited in international law. There are times where it will be necessary, legitimate, and proportionate to give primacy to rights based on sex – and for such considerations to be reflected in current and future policy and legislation, including on self-identification of gender identity, health care, and hate speech.

The National: Emma Caldwell was murdered in 2005 (family handout/PA)

In a week that has seen the publication of the Angiolini Inquiry into the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard and the announcement of a public inquiry into the botched investigation into Emma Caldwell’s (above) murder, who could possibly doubt that Reem Alsalem is right in her conclusions. When it appears that misogyny and a lack of respect for women so permeates the very institutions meant to protect us then we have a problem.

READ MORE: Laura Webster: We're making great progress but it’s not done yet

On Tuesday evening I attended an “in conversation” event with Doreen Lawrence to mark IWD. Her persistence in fighting for justice for her murdered son, Stephen Lawrence, led to a public inquiry that made a finding of institutionalised racism in the Metropolitan police.

I believe that the backlash against the rights of women and girls is so serious in the UK right now that we are in danger of seeing institutionalised misogyny. While there can be no comparison with the plight of women in Afghanistan or Iran, the root of our oppression at home is the same – the desire to control and silence women.

Whether that desire comes from a twisted version of religion or a twisted belief that the rights of men or any other group should be placed above the rights of women, we must be vigilant to make sure these desires do not become embedded in our institutions. There is no hierarchy of rights.

Human rights are universal and today, more than ever, the rights of women merit some attention.