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LETTER TO UNSRVAW

The WRN is proud to have co-signed this letter to the UN Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women regarding the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.

Reem Alsalem 

Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences The United Nations 

By email 

5 December 2022 

Dear Ms Alsalem, 

You were sent on 29 November a widely publicised letter from six organisations in Scotland  (Engender, JustRight Scotland, Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, Scottish Women’s Aid,  Amnesty International Scotland and Rape Crisis Scotland). 

We write as a set of groups and individuals, from Scotland and elsewhere in the UK,  exercised about the impact on women of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill  currently before the Scottish Parliament. We do so to set out our alternative view, provide  context to the letter noted above, and to comment on it. We have had limited time to gather  signatories and believe others may wish to add their support. 

We welcome your intervention. 

We submit that the international ambition of improving safety and respect for those with  transgender identities should not be accomplished at the expense of women’s rights to safety,  privacy, and dignity on the basis of sex, including access to effective trauma-informed  services. 

We use “sex” here to mean what the Inner House of the Court of Session of Scotland referred to as “biological sex”. The Court of Session identify this definition as that which should be  applied in any circumstances “affecting status, or important rights, in particular the rights of  others”, and cite examples which “all have in common … that they concern status or  important rights.” 

We note a great imbalance in the discussion here at international level. Professor Robert  Wintemute, a co-author of the original Yogyakarta principles, has said (here): “If I had  thought through the implications of Principle 3, I would have had to consider the potential for  conflict with women’s rights, but I didn’t…Women’s rights weren’t raised.” He added last week: “Five years ago, I would have supported the Bill. But I have listened to the concerns of  lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual women and changed my mind.”

UN instruments

We draw attention to the Preamble of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of  Discrimination against Women which states: 

“discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect  for human dignity, is an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with  men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries.” 

And to the recognition in Article One that discrimination: 

on the basis of sex … has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the  recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a  basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in  the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” 

We further note that the Preamble to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence  against Women recognises: 

“that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power  relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and  discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement  of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms  by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” 

And highlight that Article Three states: 

“Women are entitled to the equal enjoyment and protection of all human rights and  fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other  field. These rights include, inter alia : 

a. The right to life

b. The right to equality; 

c. The right to liberty and security of person

d. The right to equal protection under the law; 

e. The right to be free from all forms of discrimination; 

f. The right to the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health; g. The right to just and favourable conditions of work; 

h. The right not to be subjected to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or  degrading treatment or punishment.” 

The issue at stake

At the heart of the issue here, directly relevant to your remit, is the value placed on women’s  right and ability to set personal boundaries based on sex, when they need to, with certainty.  We do not consider here other issues relevant to women’s rights raised by the Bill, such as  fair competition in sports or the effectiveness of anti-discrimination measures. 

We believe the answers to four questions determine how seriously the rights to boundaries  based on sex are taken. These relate to situations where it matters to a woman that a person is providing any service (including performing physically intimate procedures) or sharing any  space where questions of privacy, dignity or safety arise, will be the same sex as her.  

1. Should a woman ever be allowed certainty that a person in such circumstances will be  the same sex? 

2. If so, should such certainty be relatively ordinary or relatively rare?

3. How difficult should it be to achieve such certainty; for example, should it require  personal negotiation? 

4. Should it require a woman to share personal information, possibly revealing intimate  personal history? 

 

We believe that the organisations who have written to you do not value sufficiently the ability  of women to be readily able to set personal boundaries in relation to other people on the basis  of sex, when they need to.  

We hope you might establish from the Scottish Government, and others writing to you in  support of its proposals, their answer to the four questions set out above, not as a matter of  current law, but as one of principle, and what rights, if any, they believe women should have  to set personal boundaries based on sex. 

Related to this, we also note the importance of women’s psychological safety and how, in  contexts where the sex of another person matters, that can be compromised if our accurate  perception of a person’s sex is contradicted, or its expression suppressed. We believe such  policies and practices can amount to a form of coercive control. 

Experience in countries which have legislated here already 

We are aware that it is repeatedly argued that there is “no evidence” of negative effects from  similar legislation in this area. We believe that an ‘absence of evidence is evidence of  absence’ argument comes from adopting a hierarchy of rights in which women’s rights based  on sex are demoted. It also places an impossible burden of proof on almost wholly voluntary  campaigners who find themselves opposing state machinery and state-funded actors. It should  be rejected. 

To this end, we note that: 

− Many of the effects noted below are hard to track. But no country changing its laws  here has even tried to. 

− In Ireland a review of the legislation after three years ruled evidence on the impact on women as ‘out of scope’. 

− Women in countries where these laws are already in place face barriers to speaking  out.  

− In Norway at least two women have been pursued formally for hate crimes after  objecting to the presence of a male in a changing room. Robberstad and Halvorsen (2022) describe the interaction of laws on self-declaration and hate crime as an  ‘unresolved legal issue’ in Norway.

− In November 2020, the then Director of Amnesty Ireland co-signed a letter which  called "on media, and politicians to no longer provide legitimate representation” for  those they designated as holding “bigoted beliefs” on gender recognition.  

− The detail of the legislation, what rights are conferred, and the wider legal landscape  in which it operates is highly relevant to its effects; however, the Scottish Government  has looked only at application processes in other countries.  

The interaction of a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) with the Equality Act 2010 remains a central and unresolved concern, which is subject to current litigation  in the Scottish courts. The Scottish Government is arguing a GRC should have legal  effect under the Equality Act 2010 in a way that, when combined with the proposals  in the Bill, will put single-sex services at greater risk.  

− Neither the Scottish Government nor the co-signatories to the letter you received have  acknowledged this litigation. Outside court, the Scottish Government has refused to  state its position, even to the Scottish Parliament.  

− It is untrue that no cases have been reported of violent men obtaining access to  women’s spaces using a GRC. There are issues emerging in the prison system in  Ireland (see the Kardashian case here, and two recent interviews with women held in  Limerick Prison here).  

− Cases occurring where policies have allowed self-declaration in practice, ahead of  legal change, are also relevant to understanding the vulnerabilities of these systems.  Those known include: Katie Dolatowski (Scotland), Karen White (England) and the Wi Spa incident in the US (which was subject to a major effort to discredit the woman  reporting). Multiple worrying relevant stories are emerging from prisons and hostels  in the USA, Canada, and Australia, among others.  

− A large proportion of sexual offending is non-contact: most relevantly here, flashing  and voyeurism.  

− When male people are not allowed into women’s spaces, it is relatively  straightforward to observe that a male who is undressed, observing women, or both, in  such a space is likely to be motivated by intention to commit a sexual offence. Once  male people are normalised in these spaces, it becomes much more difficult to do so.  

− An increase in this form of offending could easily go unreported; reporting concerns  about the presence of males in women-only spaces can carry a high risk of social or  formal penalties (see above). 

− The under-reporting of sexual offending is a global issue. Only a minority of cases are  likely to be reported, and of those that are, some may not be for years. 

− In some situations, such as intimate medical and care settings, we know that women  can take a long time to process that their experience was abusive. The fear of being  accused of transphobia can be expected to add to the factors deterring women from  raising a complaint. 

− Statistical evidence has been compromised in countries adopting self-declaration by  replacing sex with gender identity in datasets (as in Norway) and/or not tracking  relevant cases, meaning it is no help. Thus, immediately after the law was changed, Denmark saw a sharp rise in recorded rapes and sexual assaults. But without an  appropriately detailed examination of the type of cases, it is impossible to know  whether any of this increase might have been related to the introduction of self-declaration rather than, say, changes in how sexual offending was dealt with in the  criminal justice system. It does not appear that these figures have prompted such an  investigation. 

− The issues here are, however, about far more than known incidents of violent or  sexual assault in women’s spaces.  

− Women are concerned about a loss of confidence that they will not meet anyone  clearly male in a women-only space. For some women, this loss may result in self exclusion from spaces or services, for reasons of dignity, privacy, or safety. In some  cases, women may exclude for personal reasons, including trauma responses and  religious requirements.  

− Self-exclusion leads women to avoid seeking help from VAWG services; discharging  early from hospital wards, at risk to their health; greater social isolation, due to ceasing to attend certain activities and spaces; and a loss of independence due to  greater reluctance to use public toilet facilities, with older women and women  experiencing heavy or unpredictable menstrual flow among those most affected. 

− Whether male offending patterns track biological sex or identity is relevant for policy  and law-making here. A unique population-level longitudinal quantitative research from Sweden has been systematically ignored and misrepresented by activists  promoting self-declaration. The research concluded with absolute clarity: ‘In this  study, male-to-female individuals had a higher risk for criminal convictions compared  to female controls but not compared to male controls. This suggests that the sex  reassignment procedure neither increased nor decreased the risk for criminal  offending in male-to-females.’ (Dhjene et al. 2011: 6). We are not aware of any study  which contradicts this finding.  

− Self-declaration systems are still relatively new, with only limited time for any wider  effects to show. This situation is exacerbated by a lack of any attempt to look for such  effects, and a wider context, in which those highlighting relevant cases are subject to  unfounded accusations of hatred, involving social and legal sanctions. 

 

We are not surprised that you have reported receiving many messages from women in many  countries in Europe and beyond thanking you for raising these issues and expressing concerns  about similar planned legislation in their countries. We expect you will receive many from  women in countries that have introduced laws in this area with inadequate attention being  paid to their impact on women and girls’ dignity, privacy and safety.

 

Points made in the letter of 29 November 

Regarding the letter from the six Scottish organisations, we note the following: 

− The assertion that “a wide range of individuals and groups [fed] into the process at  length” does not give a fair account of a process that has been partial, closed, and  biased. We can provide further detailed evidence of this. We agree that the process has  been prolonged, to the detriment of all involved, but this time has not been used well by  the Scottish Government. 

− The commentary on the Equality Act 2010 overlooks that under the current state of legal confusion a GRC may, in practice, be used by individuals to persuade service providers  or employers to admit them to a single sex service, space or role from which they would  otherwise be excluded. Relatedly, it overlooks that fear of such challenges will influence providers in deciding whether to make use of their powers to make single sex services available. We draw your attention to this article by barrister Naomi Cunningham.

− Regarding the Yogyakarta Principles, see the comments by Prof Wintemute noted above. 

− International standards and best practice should indeed go further than the ECHR, not least on issues relating to violence against women and girls. In our strong view, the Bill  has the opposite effect by creating under-scoped new risks to the exercise of women’s  rights to safety, privacy, and dignity on the basis of sex. 

− The parliamentary process was demonstrably biased (again we can provide further  evidence to support this). The majority of the Committee over-relied on “absence of evidence” arguments and, even then, wrongly asserted that no “concrete” examples had  been provided of problems arising from these systems. 

− The reliance on a statutory declaration accompanied by criminal penalty for falsity is  not a “robust” safeguard. Research on deterrence shows that effectiveness relates to the likelihood of being caught. The Scottish Government is unable to explain how any  person could be shown not to be living in their acquired gender, beyond not having  changed personal documents. 

− “International human rights best practice” is used repeatedly as a means of closing down  criticism. The question of what best practice for all looks like has been inadequately considered by those who promote it (again, we cite Professor Wintemute). 

− The observations on single sex spaces again overlook the issues set out by Ms Cunningham on the Equality Act. They also overlook that whatever may be said about what the law technically permits, the organisations who contacted you already take a narrow view of how it should be applied.  

− With specific reference to prisons, the issue is not how policy operates now. It is nonetheless, disputable that the current policy is working well: we draw your attention to the first-hand experiences of female prisoners in the Scottish prison estate (page 3 here) and to the current case reported here.  

− Aside from this, the Bill raises the question of whether the Scottish Prison Service policy would withstand legal challenge from a GRC holder, given GRCs will now be far  more readily available to those in prison. We draw your attention to data showing that  half of the 16 transgender inmates in Scottish prisons began transitioning while "being cared for in custody following their remand or conviction for their current offence”, and that six have “current or previous” convictions for sex offences. 

− On the assertion that there are no issues or problems in practice regarding the provision of specialist services for women who have suffered violence and abuse, we contrast the statements in the letter with the written submission made to the Committee by HEAL survivors group, the experiences of women reported here, and a report of women’s  experiences produced by the Scottish Women’s Convention.  

− HEAL question the ambiguity of references to trans-inclusive services and that this can encompass a variety of approaches, with very different implications for women’s  experiences in those services.  

− HEAL also detail the difficulty women have had in obtaining clarity and reassurance from national bodies about the availability of single sex services in Scotland, and how women can identify and access services with certainty, and without fear of how they will be treated.  

− The statement that “in those 15 years, there has not been a single incident of anyone abusing this” cannot be reliably made. The most the signatories can say is that they are not aware of any such incidents, based on whatever steps they have taken to establish this with face-to-face providers on the ground (which none of the signatories are, see  below) over this period.  

− An understanding of women’s responses to male violence and abuse should always  allow for the possibility of unreported incidents, while a trauma-informed approach further requires recognition of the potential to provoke trauma responses and for self exclusion as a negative effect. 

Conclusion 

We regret that the signatory organisations of the 29 November letter have not sought at any point to engage with those who are concerned about the impact of the legislation on women in Scotland.  

In Scotland, day-to-day, face-to-face support for women who have been subject to violence  and abuse is provided by numerous independent organisations, rather than those who have  written to you. Most of these provider organisations (62 in total) now receive central  government funding under the national Equally Safe (Violence Against Women and Girls)  Fund, only recently placed at arm’s length from the Scottish Government. 

RCS campaigns at national level and sets standards for a network of 17 local direct service  providers. It receives national funding to manage a national phone line (5pm-midnight);  provide specialist support to individual women going through the justice system; and  undertakes educational work. SWA describes itself as ‘coordinating, influencing and  campaigning’. It is the national office of a network of 34 independent local direct service providers and receives national funding to manage a national Domestic Abuse and Forced  Marriage Helpline (24 hours). Two organisations (Just Right, Scottish Women’s Rights  Centre, itself a project of RCS) provide legal and advocacy support to individuals. 

There has not been any substantial consultation with local providers of VAW services in  Scotland on the position taken by third sector bodies at national level. We draw your attention to the comments from Isabelle Kerr quoted below and further evidence that women working within front-line services in Scotland have felt constrained from contradicting the position taken by organisations at national level, as illustrated in this interview

We note that Isabelle Kerr, who recently retired as Manager of Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis Centre and has 40 years’ experience working in the women’s sector in Scotland and  internationally, has said that women contacting services in Scotland can no longer “even ask  if I can have a woman to support me” (6 October 2022, at 32.0mins here). She added that she and one other woman working in the sector had been “hounded out of our jobs because of  what we believe”. She observed that Engender, RCS, SWA and Zero Tolerance had  previously issued a statement which asserted that services in Scotland had included males  who identify as women for many years, and that no problems had ever been reported. On this Ms Kerr commented: “none of that was accurate…not one single rape crisis centre and not one single women’s aid centre was consulted before that statement was put out… There are groups on the ground who are scared to speak out because it is a condition of funding.” She  added “trauma doesn’t recognise legislation.”  

We ask you to consider our submission alongside others you have received.

SIGNED: 

Organisations 

Fair Play For Women 

For Women Scotland 

Frontline Feminists Scotland 

Keep Prisons Single Sex 

MurrayBlackburnMackenzie 

Scottish Feminist Network 

Sex Matters 

Woman’s Place UK 

Women and Girls in Scotland 

Women’s Declaration International (Scotland) 

Women’s Rights Network 

Women’s Rights Network Scotland 

Women Speak Scotland 

Women Voting With Our Feet 

Individuals  

Julie Bindel , Journalist, author and feminist campaigner 

Shonagh Dillon, CEO, Aurora New Dawn 

Vivienne Hayes MBE, CEO, Women’s Resource Centre 

Rhona Hotchkiss, Former Governor in Charge, Scottish Prison Service, Chair - North  Ayrshire Women’s Aid 

Karen Ingala Smith, CEO, nia and author of ‘Defending Women’s Spaces’

Dickie James MBE, CEO, Staffordshire Women’s Aid 

Isabelle Kerr OBE, former manager, Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis Centre

Elaine Miller, Fellow of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy 

Clarrie O’Callaghan, Director, Femicide Census  

Professor Jo Phoenix, School of Law, University of Reading 

Onjali Q. Rauf MBE, Founder and CEO of Making Herstory 

Lisa-Marie Taylor, CEO, FiLiA 

Sophie Walker, Founding Leader, Women’s Equality Party (2015-19)

Dianne Whitfield, former CEO, Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre

Harriet Wistrich, Solicitor 

cc Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Rt Hon James Cleverly MP

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