Written by Anna Bartter
Rishi Sunak is our new prime minister. But is he good news for women’s rights in the UK?
Blink, and we have a new prime minister. There’s no doubt that our third PM in two months, and the fifth in six years, has a Herculean task on his hands. Aside from single-handedly needing to sort out the political and fiscal chaos we’re in, we all want to know whether Rishi Sunak will prove his worth as a fourth-wave feminist.
During his first, failed bid to become prime minister back in the summer (yes, it really was only a few months ago) when he lost out to the doomed Liz Truss, Sunak’s manifesto claimed he would make women’s rights, particularly in relation to violence, a priority.
He tweeted: “If I become Prime Minister, I will protect women’s rights and ensure women and girls enjoy the same freedom most males take for granted in feeling safe from assault and abuse.”
But where does he stand on the key issues? For an insight into his true values, we take a look at his voting history.
It’s clear that Sunak, 42, makes his wife, Akshata Murthy, and their two daughters Krishna, 11, and Anoushka, nine, a priority, with reports that the family may be the first to reject the Downing Street address that comes with the job and remain instead at their Kensington townhouse, allowing his youngest daughter to walk to school and minimise disruption to their lives.
So far, so understandable.
Indeed, Sunak told Grazia magazine back in June that when his daughters were small, he was able to spend a lot of time looking after them, saying, “Probably my wife would tell you that when our girls were babies to toddlers, I probably did the bulk of [the childcare]. I love it, and I’ve really missed it.”
He’s been vocal about how lucky he has been to be around for his children, and according to The Telegraph, following his July resignation he told fathers in the school playground how much he was enjoying doing the school run. But is he on the class WhatsApp groups?
Since becoming an MP in 2015, Sunak has opted out of major votes on abortion rights, except one. In April 2021, he voted in favour of a motion to impose the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland, but disappointingly sat out of two recent votes.
Earlier this month, MPs voted to criminalise harassment of women at abortion clinics, punishable by up to six months in prison, and back in March this year, MPs voted to make at-home abortions (brought in during the pandemic) permanently available in England. Sunak abstained from both votes.
Violence against women
Here’s where Sunak’s words step up to the mark, saying violence against women and girls should be a matter of “national emergency”.
During his original leadership bid, Sunak was unwavering in his stance that there should be “a major crackdown” on grooming gangs, saying, “As a father of two girls, I want them to be able to go for a walk in the evening or to a shop at night without any fear of threat”.
It remains to be seen whether his actions will speak louder than his words – watch this space.
The cost of living crisis
Research by the UK Women’s Budget Group (WBG) has shown that women are the “shock absorbers” of poverty, and it’s no surprise that the cost of living crisis is said to be disproportionately affecting women.
And that’s before we look at the issue of childcare. The pandemic has brought the inequality of the childcare burden in the UK to the forefront of people’s minds, with demand far outstripping supply, and exorbitant costs pricing many families out of the option of working.
Reports show that nearly three-quarters of part-time workers are women, and 57% of those feel they have “no choice” but to work part-time, as the WBG reports that “childcare fees have increased at twice the rate of wages in the last 10 years, keeping many women out of work”.
Unfortunately, Sunak is yet to show his hand on these issues, having made no public statements, so it remains to be seen whether a prime minister who is richer than the King can relate to those of us juggling childcare with a much-needed job.
The gender pay gap
In 2015, there was a bid to require an annual report from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to analyse the gender pay gap and how to close it. Sunak voted against it, and he also voted against an “assessment of the impact of Government policies on women; against mitigating any disproportionate burden on women” and against publishing a gender equality strategy.
Furthermore, in 2016, Sunak decided the government didn’t need to ensure women are not disproportionally impacted by tax and benefit changes.
Transgender and LGBTQ+ rights
While Sunak has said that transgender people should be respected, he has criticised gender-neutral language and has supported claims for trans women to be banned from competing in women’s sports, and from using female toilets.
During a televised leadership hustings in August, he said he didn’t believe that transgender women are women.
However, at the height of his prime ministerial campaign, Sunak told LGBT+ Conservatives that he would be committed to progressing LGBT+ rights if he became prime minister, saying he wanted to “end new HIV transmissions by 2030, [and] address instances of hate crime”, while “fostering a more tolerant, accepting society”.
Worryingly, Sunak has appointed Kemi Badenoch as minister for women and equalities – an MP who has reportedly called trans women “men” and has been absent for votes on same-sex marriage and abortion.
It’s early days, but time will tell whether our new prime minister will follow through on his promises to women and the UK as a whole.
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