Violence against women and girls: How Centre for Women’s Justice takes on the challenge

UK lawyers are, on the whole, either uninformed about or uninterested in using international legal mechanisms to uphold human rights and challenge discriminatory practice. This may be mainly because whilst the UK are signed up to and have ratified seven critically important UN treaties guaranteeing universal human rights[1], most of these are not binding in English law.  Ironically, this is one area where the violence against women’s (VAWG) sector appears to be far more educated and advanced in their knowledge of the law than most lawyers.  For a number of years the VAWG sector has lobbied the government and contributed to Shadow reports on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, to date, apart from the odd individual it seems that no-one from the UK has used the CEDAW Optional Protocol mechanism to lodge a formal complaint of a violation by the UK of this convention. Whilst not binding on UK law, a decision by the CEDAW committee to if a complaint to the CEDAW committee were to be upheld, this could and should cause severe embarrassment to the UK government and be a driver for legislative change.

This is why I, working together with the seven Applicants and with the assistance of experts met through my work in developing CWJ, have this week lodged a complaint of institutionalised discrimination against women under the Optional protocol of CEDAW. CEDAW was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly.  A Committee of 23 independent experts on women’s rights from around the world monitors the implementation of CEDAW.  The UK ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW in 2004. This enables individuals who have been subjected to discrimination contrary to the convention and exhausted all domestic remedies to make complaints. However, since ratification, according to the CEDAW website, a total of thirty nine complaints only  from around the world have been considered by the committee.  Of these there appear to have been only three complaints submitted from the UK to the CEDAW committee and all have been held to inadmissible.

The complaint (or ‘communication’) is based on a case I have been involved in for a number of years (through my work as a solicitor at Birnberg Peirce) concerning the shameful operation of undercover police units set up to gather intelligence on protest activity ostensibly for the purpose of assisting the policing of public order.

These highly secretive units, the first of which was set up in 1968, placed very well resourced undercover police officers with a false identity deep undercover to spy on mainly left wing, environmental and social justice campaigns.  In the last few years it has come to light, mainly as a result of those who were victims of the abuse, that many of these officers  formed long term intimate sexual relationships with women involved or connected with the groups they were spying on.  A group of eight women, all of whom have been seriously harmed by the discovery of these grotesque deceptions facilitated by the state, came together and worked with me to explore legal mechanisms to hold the police to account, and to stop such practices from being repeated.  We brought civil actions which allowed the claimants a greater level of control over the legal procedure than other options. These claims eventually resulted in substantial financial settlements and the delivery of a very fulsome public apology by an Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police However, despite this impressive outcome, the women have still not received any information or disclosure about the reasons for the spying activity or details as to how much of their personal details were recorded in police files and shared with supervisors.  Nor were there any declarations by the court system that such activity was unlawful.  In fact, on the contrary, the current law which regulates the activities of undercover police officers, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, expressly allows the forming of ‘relationships’. Despite our challenge through the English Court system, the relevant clauses of RIPA have been interpreted not to exclude the forming of intimate sexual relationships.

CEDAW is broader in reach than either the Equality Act or Article 14 ECHR as a mechanism for challenging discrimination against women.  It has incorporated the concept of gender based violence allowing us to argue that this violation of the women’s bodily and emotional integrity amounting to complete disrespect for their human dignity and was an act almost exclusively perpetrated by men towards women.  CEDAW also includes provisions requiring the state to prevent gender stereotyping enabling us to argue that the pretence of emotional and sexual intimacy was behaviour targeted to engage the women’s attention and commitment.  Article 7 of CEDAW requires the State to ensure that women are not discriminated in respect of the political or public life of the country.  In this case many of the women are fearful of becoming involved in political activities because of their experiences and the lack of trust they now feel.  Article 16 of CEDAW (preventing discrimination in matters relation to marriage and family life) has enabled us to argue that the violation impacted on the women’s reproductive rights and their choices about having children. Some of the women have missed the opportunity of having children, and one has children who were born as a result of the deception, which had a major impact on her and her children.

My experience over the last two years in exploring the feasibility of CWJ and then in establishing the organisation has led me to attend sessions on the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations and to network widely with a range of stakeholders including international law experts.  Through this I became more aware of the potential of CEDAW and was able to identify the possibility of bringing a CEDAW complaint in relation to the Undercover police case.  The women who have brought this complaint were the first to describe what happened to them as ‘institutional sexism’.  Through their shared experiences they have articulated the scope and extent of the harm they suffered and the remedies they seek. In drafting the Petition with the help of Louise Price, a barrister at Doughty Street, we obtained invaluable expert assistance from Lisa Gormley and Christine Chinkin from the London School of Economics and Jackie Hone from University of West of England.

We don’t yet know whether our application will be ruled admissible and what will be the outcome of any investigation of our complaint, but at the very least this important  challenge has enabled us to find a legal route to express the institutionally sexist nature of the police conduct.


[1]International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT); Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol (CRPD)