As part of the theme of this year's Bar Conference "All Bar None - Access, Development, Diversification", the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) hosted a morning session under the banner "A Global Mission: Championing women in the fight for Human Rights". BHRC was delighted that so many were able to attend and participate in the session which included an introductory address from BHRC Chair Kirsty Brimelow QC.
The choice of subject for the session reflected the 100-year anniversary of the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and the early attempts to open the professions for women on an equal footing to men. Though Kirsty reminded us that perhaps we still didn't live in such enlightened times as it is only in in the last 20 years that a woman could wear trousers to court without being thought a dangerous radical!
The panel included: Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, whose remarkable career is well-known, and who is about to embark on a fresh challenge with the International Bar Association, leading its work on human rights. Susi Bascon continues in her role as Director of Peace Brigades International (PBI), and Zubaida Mahmoud is a member of the Bars of Nigeria and New York.
It was a tribute to the impact that BHRC has that such a distinguished panel was able to attend and to lead the discussion.
In the nearly 30 years between writing "Eve Was Framed"and her most recent book "Eve Was Shamed", Baroness Kennedy QC noted there had been significant changes, but there remained myths and stereotypes of "good woman-hood" that still affected and burdened women. These issues were particularly troublesome in an age of social media which has changed the way people interact socially and professionally.
PBI is providing life-saving support for Human Rights defenders on the ground, and as part of this work, Susi Bascon reminded us that those defenders were paying with their lives for standing up for those rights. This included seeking redress and recognition for those women who had been the object of sexual violence.
Zubeida Mahmoud gave an enlightening insight into the way women's rights are developing in Nigeria and in particular the impact that a growing awareness of these issues is having in the courts and professions. There continue to be real problems, an example of which is the continuing reference to all practitioners in Nigeria as "gentlemen" irrespective of sex! Although some 113 out of a total of 161 students who received first class honours were women, out of the 450 senior lawyers in Nigeria only some 21 were women.
The question and answer session threw up a diverse range of issues: the historical and current impact of sexual violence within conflicts, the disproportionate and discriminatory representation of women within prison populations, and the continuing level and impact of unconscious bias both within the professions and in the approach of courts to women.
The final words came from Baroness Kennedy who offered this plea; the #metoo movement was a cry that women the world over had had enough and that we all, men and women alike, had to take equality seriously, but this had to be part of a process that was fair and just for all.