Pushing for women’s rights in Lithuania
After five years in the financial sector in Dublin Aileen O’Driscoll changed career and moved to Vilnius to work for the European Institute for Gender Equality. This Sunday marks the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
After five years in the financial sector in Dublin Aileen O’Driscoll changed career and moved to Vilnius to work for the European Institute for Gender Equality.
Growing up in Dublin in the 80s, my residing memories of our rare family trips in to the city centre from north county Dublin were of a grim and bleak place. The city’s buildings were dirty and decrepit, and the excitement of being bundled into the car for an outing was dampened somewhat by our entry into the city along the depressed North Quay area. Rainy and grey (or so it seemed), it was clear many Dubliners were not exactly flush with money.
Throughout the 1990s things began to change, and the city started to transform, not least architecturally. My teenage years, spent bussing it into town to shop in Temple Bar, sneaking into over-18s gigs, and trying to emulate the more rebellious of the rocker kids at Central Bank, instilled in me a very deep affection and love for Dublin city. It was vibrant and exciting and full of opportunities. The economy was picking up, jobs were plentiful and securing part-time work to support myself through college was never an issue.
The booming economy, however, lulled me into a false sense of security. I could coast along and would always be gainfully employed. My university studies went by in a blur, and the healthy jobs climate in Ireland meant it wasn’t so urgent that I figure out where my passions and interests in life lay. I could job-hop whenever I wanted – there’d always be work. I graduated with a BA in Business & Political Science in 2004, at a time when it was so easy to find a job that I didn’t really need to seriously consider what I wanted to do, where I hoped to go, and the core skills I needed to pick up along the way. It took five years working in financial services to realise that these were fundamental questions, and that maybe I was on the wrong path.
But, with very bad timing (true to form), I did begin to question my priorities, and what motivated me. This soul-searching occurred in the middle of a deep recession, at a time when I had a secure, permanent job, and the news and media was bombarding us with stories of over-populated dole queues. I never imagined that the day I made the decision to leave my job in the insurance industry would also result in my leaving Ireland and working for a European agency in Lithuania 15 months later.
A five-year career in financial services had left me feeling uninspired. I wanted to be involved in a profession that not only paid the rent, but which I felt also mattered. I asked myself what it was that I believed to be a burning and relevant issue. The answer came to me so clearly that I almost doubted the ease at which I had stumbled on my new career.
I have always personally identified as feminist, but my interest in women’s issues had never really been rooted in activism. While it was abundantly clear that there was much progress to be made in the area of gender equality and women’s rights both in Ireland and overseas – as evidenced in recent weeks with the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar – I came to the realisation that I could contribute in another way and that my form of feminist activism would be to dedicate the next 20 to 30 years working in the gender equality field.
So, with some savings foraged away, I handed in my notice and embarked on a Master’s programme in Gender and Women’s Studies in Trinity College. This was the first step taken on a road that would lead me out of Ireland. The Masters enabled me to feel vindicated in my suspicion that women’s rights had not, in fact, been totally and completely won. That sense of injustice and unease which I had harboured for so long met with cold, hard facts about prevailing sexist attitudes towards women in Ireland, Europe and across the world, and I knew this was an area in which I would strive to work.
The decision to leave Ireland was ultimately an easy one to make. While there are still many pertinent issues facing women in Ireland that I hope to work on some day, the opportunity to take up an internship position in the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) in Vilnius was too tempting to pass up. Gaining EU experience in the field of public policy and research, directly affecting and influencing women’s lives was very appealing and I wanted to be at the centre of that push for the advancement of women.
To coincide with the UN Elimination of Violence against Women Day on 25th November, EIGE is due to publish its report on Violence against Women, focusing on Member States’ responses to the issue of domestic violence in terms of victim support services. The stark statistics paint a grim picture of the problem of domestic violence perpetrated against women across the EU Member States, and how various countries respond to it. When you hear that one in three women in the world will experience violence in her lifetime it is difficult to argue that women now “have it all”.
EIGE’s Vilnius location has added another interesting dimension to my move from Ireland. Living in post-communist Eastern Europe is proving to be a challenging, but fascinating experience. Certainly Vilnius is much like any European city, with wonderful restaurants and cafes, fashionable and chic shopping, international cultural events and festivals. But, when you scratch the surface and begin to get to know the Lithuanians, their history and their culture, their initial reserved exterior seems like a defence, and you start to appreciate just how recently they are recovering from a period of terror and repression under Soviet rule. Lithuania, however, has a long way to go in stamping out sexism and homophobia, as mentioned in a recent Irish Times article by Orla Tinsley.
So, while I don’t know where the next step will take me, I think there are many exciting prospects beginning to emerge, and doors starting to creak open. I hope my burgeoning career will be at the heart of important work being undertaken in the field of gender equality. Armed with new skills and competences from my international experience, that journey may, one day, bring me back home.
For now, I am really enjoying living in Vilnius. The ancient Gothic and Baroque architecture of the Old Town; the medieval cobbled streets; the many styles, colours and denominations of the churches – Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic; and the distinct Lithuanian cuisine are still exotic and new to my Irish sensibilities. My favourite thing about Vilnius, however, is the street lighting. So reminiscent of times when the city was lit by gas lanterns, it is a pleasure to walk the streets at night bathed in the soft orange hues which lend the old town centre a mysterious glow that surely is a unique Vilnius delight.
For more information about the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, see un.org.