Could 2014 be the year that women are put at the centre of societal change?
A resurgent interest in feminism indicates the type of society Irish people want
This year brings the opportunity of a referendum on removing Article 41 from our Constitution. This article ascribes to women a life within the home, and defines women as mothers. Photograph: The Irish Times
Today on Nollaig na mBan – a day when traditionally women sat back and let men take over housekeeping duties – we look forward and wonder will this be a year when we come closer to true equality between women and men in Ireland?
As director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), I believe 2014 offers many opportunities to change the balance of power between women and men. The local and European elections will be a significant test to see whether new legislation on quotas results in a greater number of women candidates.
Local politics is the testing ground for national elections, and currently only 16 per cent of our local politicians are women. The May elections will need to result in significantly more women elected to local government if the parties are to meet the quota for the general election in 2016.
Political reform is high on the Government’s agenda in 2014. From the perspective of women, cultural change in how the Oireachtas works needs to be at the centre of any reform programme. The sexist incidents witnessed last year are part of a machismo culture dominating our parliament. Strong leadership is needed to bring about more family-friendly structures and ways of working that are fitting for modern society. In spring the NWCI will launch a model of a women-friendly Oireachtas based on the stories and experiences of current and former TDs, male and female.
The Taoiseach is rightly emphasising employment and job creation. Within that there need to be separate strategies for women. In Ireland the labour force participation rate for women is 53.3 per cent, compared to 68.4 per cent for men. Women are also far more likely to work on a part-time basis: almost 70 per cent of all part-time workers are women.
Despite being more highly qualified than men, women are more likely to be disproportionately represented in the lowest-paid sectors of the economy, and are still paid less, on average, than men. Having children also impacts on women in Ireland to a much greater extent than men.
According to the EU, in 2011, the Irish employment rate was 85.7 per cent for a woman with a husband or partner but no children. It plummeted to 51.5 per cent for women whose youngest child was aged 4-5 years. The costs of childcare continue to be amongst the highest in Europe, and yet we still have minimal State subsidisation for universal childcare – a service that mothers throughout Europe consider the norm.
2014 also brings the opportunity of a referendum on removing Article 41 from our Constitution. This article ascribes to women a life within the home, and defines women as mothers. The Constitutional Convention voted to support the NWCI recommendation to replace the article with one that recognises the importance of care in our society for men and women.
The start of this month marked the introduction of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, critical to the saving of women’s lives. However, we continue to bury our heads in the sand as more than 4,000 women travel abroad for abortions each year. Polls show that people in Ireland want more access to abortion services here. For this to happen there would have to be a referendum.
While violence against women has increased in these times of austerity, and frontline services have faced severe cutbacks, 2014 offers a real opportunity for the Government to say that violence against women is unacceptable and to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women, which it has already said it supports in principle.
There is in Ireland a resurgence in interest in feminism. NWCI membership is growing, and many have joined our youth initiative, the Y Factor – a project empowering young people to become leaders for women’s equality. This, we believe, is an indication of the type of society Irish people want to move towards and also how vital the value of feminism is in shaping our country’s future. If we want Ireland to be a different place for all members of society in 2014, we must all be proactive in ensuring that the attainment of women’s rights and equality is at the centre of positive change.
Orla O’Connor is director of the NWCI, which today launches ‘Inspiring Women - Inspiring Stories’. See www.nwci.ie