Second Opinion: We still have immaculate conceptions

Wed, Aug 6, 2014, 09:00

Following the recent revelations about mother-and-baby homes, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: “It is about the kind of country Ireland was.” I wish he was right.

In 1933 George Bernard Shaw wrote: “It is amazing how the grossest abuses thrive on their reputation for being old, unhappy, far-off things in an age of imaginary progress.”

The concluding observations in Ireland’s fourth report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee show that Ireland is the kind of country that ignored women’s rights in the past and continues to do so in the present.

Sir Nigel Rodley, vice-chairman of the committee, referred to a litany of human rights abuses, including the practice of symphysiotomy, Magdalene laundries, and mother-and-baby homes as “quite a collection” and “there was nothing about accountability in anything we have heard”.

I beg to differ. Women were, and are, held accountable whereas men were, and are, not. Between 1922 and 1987, when the concept of illegitimacy was abolished, 145,073 illegitimate children were born in Ireland.

All these children had fathers who were not held accountable. The laws allowing women to be incarcerated for becoming pregnant outside marriage were enacted by men to ensure the fathers of these children were not accountable. In 2014, little has changed.

The Report of the Interdepartmental Group on Mother and Baby Homes has half a sentence about fathers, which refers to the fact that the mothers “had no support from the father”. That’s it. No curiosity about why this was or why society was structured so that women could be blamed.

The group’s report refers to the Dáil motion of June 11th and “the failure of religious institutions, the State, communities and families to cherish the children of the nation”. Why are the failures of the children’s fathers not mentioned?

Historical survey

The report concludes that “a comprehensive historical survey of the treatment of unmarried mothers and their children in Ireland would be of considerable relevance to public understanding”.

Do the public not need to understand why the fathers behaved as they did? It is as if no fathers were involved in these pregnancies.

Ireland still has immaculate conceptions. Business leaders and public-sector managers constantly refer to the difficulties posed by the cost of maternity leave and the high taxes and PRSI rates needed to fund this leave. The fact that women get pregnant is a disincentive to employing them.

Employers forget that the taxes and PRSI contributions of two people, the mother and the father, cover these costs. Whenever there are discussions about childcare costs, in many cases only the mother’s earnings are considered when the parents decide whether or not she can afford to return to work.

“Thorough investigations”

The UN committee wants “prompt, independent and thorough investigations” into the Magdalene laundries, mother- and-baby homes and symphysiotomies, and the perpetrators, including medical personnel, prosecuted and punished. It points out that “domestic and sexual violence against women remains a serious problem”.

A new report from Cosc, Guidance on Approaches to Promoting and Developing an Understanding of Domestic, Sexual, and Gender-based Violence, notes: “Irish responses to such crimes are often victim-focused. Irish culture is less often focused on holding perpetrators to account.”

That is precisely what happened in the previous cursory investigations into the Magdalene laundries and the practice of symphysiotomy.

Neither report referred to perpetrators or analysed the kind of society that condoned such human-rights abuses. Will the mother-and-baby homes investigation actually identify the perpetrators and hold them to account? Who knows? The terms of reference are not available.

Rights abuses

In Ireland, women’s rights are still being abused. The lack of affordable childcare is an abuse of human rights. The UN Committee wants increased participation of women in the public and private sectors, which is not going to happen until parents have easy access to high-quality, State-funded childcare.

A report from the Central Statistics Office, Women and Men in Ireland 2013, published last week, shows that more than 98 per cent of those looking after home and family are women.

Men still have almost all the power. Ireland’s score for power on a Gender Equality Index was 19th out of 27 EU countries.

Ireland must submit its next report to the Human Rights Committee by the end of July 2019. Will women be as involved as men in the public and private sectors at the same levels by then? I doubt it, given the current rate of progress. Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland advisory board. drjackyjones@gmail.com

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