It is vital that women’s voices are heard in the run up to the referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union.

Gender equality has always been at the heart of what is now the EU. The Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, included a commitment to equal pay for equal work. This was backed up by a commitment to gender equality in the Treaty of Amsterdam and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Indeed, there are few political and legal unions in which gender equality has been so fundamental a principle as in the EU. Across more than a dozen Directives, the EU has ensured that women receive equal treatment in work and social security, and has ensured that member states conform to minimum standards of parental leave, and prevent discrimination against expectant and recent mothers. This March the EU announced its intention to sign the Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence; a vital move given that one third of women in the EU report having experienced domestic or sexual violence since reaching the age of 15. The EU is also driving diversity in leadership and business, showing an 8% increase in women on boards across EU business between 2010 and 2014.

 As the second largest foreign aid donor in the world the EU extends its commitment to gender equality into its development agenda, recognising that gender equality is necessary to and a product of economic development, and the attainment of an adequate standard of living. Through membership of the EU, the UK has been able to scale up its commitment to gender equality in areas such as FGM and forced marriage, thus putting national gender equality priorities on the international stage.

 All of this underlines the importance of the EU and its role in both protecting women and driving equality of opportunity for all its citizens across Europe and further afield. The UK Supreme Court has now confirmed that the principle of equality is as much a part of UK common law as it is of EU law, but the reality is that it was EU membership that forced its crystallization into law.

 This is not to suggest that the EU is a panacea for gender inequality. We know that the gender pay gap is a persistent problem, and that discrimination in employment is widespread. Indeed, it is largely thanks to the work of EU agencies such as the Fundamental Rights Agencies that we know the true scale of continuing discrimination and violence against women in Europe. We also know that the EU’s approach to austerity has disproportionately disadvantaged women. However, being part of the EU helps us to exert leverage over business, governments, and foreign powers to continue the work towards gender equality in a way that would be extremely challenging were we to attempt to do so standing alone, outside of the EU.

 It is incumbent upon all factions in the debates on the UK’s future in the EU to address the Union’s role in developing, applying and enforcing legal standards that promote gender equality. This requires a broadening of the debate and reflection on how EU membership has fundamentally impacted on the lives of women. Women’s voices must be central to the debate on the EU; women’s experiences must be accounted for in any argument that the UK should leave the EU; and plans for the continued protection of women’s rights at home and abroad must be articulated by those advocating a vote to leave the EU.

 Professor Fiona de Londras

Professor of Global Legal Studies

Birmingham Law School

University of Birmingham