The Status of Women In Scotland – Conclusions

UN Women invited submissions to the Commission on the Status of Women with information relating to alleged violations of human rights that affect the status of women in any country in the world. Our full submission can be found here but we have also turned each section into the following stand alone blog pieces:

Gender Representation on Public Boards Act I All-Women Shortlists I Census and Data Collection on Sex I Hate Crime and Public Order Act I Prisons I Women’s Services and the Genuine Occupational Requirement I Conclusions

The evidence in this submission illustrates that in Scotland there exists a serious and immediate risk to the overall framework protecting women from discrimination based on sex as well as to the individual human rights and freedoms of women. In particular the human rights of women to safety, dignity, privacy, the freedom of speech, expression and belief, the protection of maternity, the right to education and sports, the right to political and public participation, are all at grave risk from changes wrought by the current legal developments in which the Scottish Government ignores the international obligations and commitments on sex-based discrimination. It does so by replacing or conflating the protected characteristic of sex with non-protected notions of gender and/or gender identity. These redefinitions and the impact on the human rights of women have not been scrutinised from the perspective of “gender impact assessment” ie. whether it impacts the rights and freedoms of women and girls, as required by European and international frameworks.

The elimination of sex from the legal instruments and replacing it with gender and/or gender identity also diminishes the Scottish Government’s capacity, as indeed its will, to introduce, implement and monitor any positive temporary measures, in any sphere of women’s human rights, be it economic, social, political or cultural,  as – as far as the principle of equality between women and men is concerned –  all such measures in international law are based on sex, which is an objective and immutable biological characteristic1 and not self-perceived and subjective gender identity. As such, the steps taken by the Scottish Government described above make achieving de facto equality for women and girls in Scotland impossible. Indeed, women and girls in Scotland are facing a grave risk of having their human rights rolled back to the pre-CEDAW era.

This happens in the context where protection of women and girls from sex-based discrimination in Scotland is already not as strong as it is required by such instruments as CEDAW. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom ratified CEDAW in 1986, the Convention has not been properly incorporated in UK or Scots law,2 and women in Scotland and the UK in general currently cannot take a case to court on the grounds that it violates their rights under CEDAW. This means that, should the legal framework protecting the human rights of women, women’s equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex, be further weakened as the aforementioned examples demonstrate, then women and girls in Scotland will not be in the position to claim their rights by relying directly on the major international bill of women’s rights that is CEDAW.

For Women Scotland considers that the Government of Scotland has permitted – and in many cases encouraged – the steady erosion of women’s rights as defined in UK and international law. In the paper Losing Sight of Women’s Rights,3 MBM Policy considered “how gender self-identification, without any requirement that a person has gone through any form of legal process, had already become a feature of Scottish policy-making and practice long before public consultation began on reforming the GRA”. Using case studies of the Census and the actions of the Scottish Prison Service, they examined how women’s legal rights and protections had been undermined and addressed the process of policy capture by which lobby groups funded by the Scottish Government had imposed their faulty reading of the law.

All this is exacerbated by the small and interconnected nature of the Scottish political and lobbyist class. The Scottish Government is very reliant on external groups who, in turn, receive nearly all their funding from the Scottish Government. Freedom of Information requests have shown how senior Civil Servants are often driven by a desire to improve their status with groups such as Stonewall which leads them to take direction on the law and women’s rights from groups who have no expertise in either field4 and a vested interest in reforming the latter. By following such advice, the Scottish Government risks acting contrary to UK and international law.5 The issue, however, for women’s rights activists in Scotland is that, with such a level of capture in the major institutions, our recourse is mainly via expensive legal cases. We have also found that once bad law or policy is introduced under the radar, it is very hard to roll back.

The First Minister’s National Advisory Council for Women and Girls has recommended that Scotland push for equality law to be devolved from the UK Government.6 For Women Scotland fear that if this should come to pass without a proper, robust commitment to a legislative framework to protect women as a sex class, women in Scotland will see their rights and status set back by decades.


  1. “The term “sex” refers to biological differences between men and women.” (CEDAW Committee’s  General Recommendation 28 on the core obligations of States parties under article 2 of CEDAW)
  2. CEDAW Committee UK Concluding Observations 2019
  3. MBM Policy – Losing sight of women’s rights: the unregulated introduction of gender self-identification as a case study of policy capture in Scotland
  4. Submission to Stonewall Workplace Equality Index: FOI release
  5. Legal Feminist, 01 February 2021, “SUBMISSION AND COMPLIANCE: risks for Stonewall Champions”
  6. Holyrood, 26 January 2021, “Devolve equalities law, women’s advisory council says”

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Gender Representation on Public Boards Act I All-Women Shortlists I Census and Data Collection on Sex I Hate Crime and Public Order Act I Prisons I Women’s Services and the Genuine Occupational Requirement I Conclusions