Our journey towards achieving equality is far from over. Even with all the progress that has been made by generations of feminists, gender still plays an important role in how we are seen and the life opportunities we enjoy in Scotland today.
We cannot, in any debate about equality, ignore the inequalities that persist in our society for more than half of the population and the need to continue to work to end those inequalities.
That is why I am very concerned at the treatment of women’s rights – and the women raising these issues – in the ongoing debate around gender self-identification and proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act.
Women’s organisations and individuals have raised real concerns around the potential erosion of women’s rights and protections. However, rather than engaging with the substance of these issues, both groups and individuals have been labelled by opponents as “transphobic” or “toxic”.
Social media has enabled many women to voice their opinions, however, it is troubling that others have used it as a tool to abuse those who should have the right to freedom of speech and expression regarding this important issue. I have recently been subjected to this myself after attending a recent protest outside of the Scottish Parliament, where I joined several of my colleagues to champion women’s rights.
Surely if women feel threatened by the SNP government’s proposals, then their concerns should be seriously listened to and properly considered? If they were raised by any other under-represented group in society, they would be. Yet if we have learned anything from looking back over a century of fighting for women’s rights, it is that our opponents will always seek to trivialise or dismiss our concerns rather than addressing their substance.
The recent Hate Crime Act, which my party opposed for a variety of reasons, failed to even extend any of its protections towards women. In Scots law, there are now stronger protections against racial and even age-motivated hate than there are against gender-motivated hate.
What type of message does this send to women across our country? It says that they do not deserve the same protections afforded to other under-represented and disadvantaged groups.
This debate is now undermining our progress towards gender equality in Scotland. The disregard shown towards women’s rights, the hostility and – in the worst cases – the vile threats directed towards the women who stand up for them exposes just how wide the current gender gap is in reality.
However, we will not be shouted down. We recognise the incredible sacrifices and hardship that previous generations of women have faced to win recognition and our rights in this country. We know that women cannot take equality for granted, and that it needs to be fought for today just as it was then.
Nicola Sturgeon announced within her Programme for Government that it would invest £100 million to tackle domestic abuse and violence against women, and support for organisations which work with women who have survived these horrific circumstances.
Whilst this is welcome, the First Minister failed to provide reassurances that changes would not be made to women’s spaces, shelters, and prisons. The only reference she made during her statement was that the Scottish government would not remove any of the legal protections that women currently have. This in itself raises serious questions that amplify the urgent need for clarity that is sought by women across the country.
Another concern that has recently emerged, which encompasses women’s rights, relates to the updated guidance for transgender pupils in schools. This announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills could result in the introduction of the concept of gender identity to children as young as four and raises the possibility of a named person taking on some responsibilities that should be solely a parent’s decision.
Whilst I thought the dreaded “named person” policy had been erased; it appears to have resurfaced. My own view is that schools should not be having a discussion with children as young as four about their gender. I know that many women’s groups share these concerns and the ability for the government to interfere with discussions that should happen between children and their parents, without the need of a named person.
That is why my party is committed to standing up for the rights of women and young people in the Scottish Parliament. We will oppose any proposals brought forward by the SNP government that undermine the gender protections set out in the Equality Act.
Many women across our country feel as though their concerns about the future of gender protections and safe spaces are not only being rejected but that they are wrong for even bringing them forward in the first place.
This dismissive, and in some cases hostile, attitude only shows that the fight for equality in Scotland is far from over. Women who raise concerns about threats to gender protections in our country deserve to be heard not vilified.
Meghan Gallacher is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Central Scotland