Contraception should be made freely available to girls under the age of 16, the National Women’s Council (NWC) has said.
In its gender analysis of last week’s budget, the NWC said the extension of the free contraception scheme to women aged between 16 and 30 years was welcome but voiced its “concern” at the “lower age limit”.
“It is critical that the most marginalised girls are not left behind and that the free scheme is available to all teenagers in need,” it said in the analysis.
The NWC said free contraception with appropriate medical support “is a public health intervention which, alongside robust relationships and sex education, mitigates the risk that adolescents face a crisis pregnancy.”
On Sunday, an NWC spokeswoman said free contraception should be “universally available, to remove all age restrictions on the basis of need and consultation with a doctor.”
“It might be needed to treat medical conditions, such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome, those kinds of things,” she said.
“But obviously then there are teenagers who have sex even though they are below the age of consent, so then it is an important public health measure to prevent crisis pregnancies.
“It should be universal. There should not be age restrictions, it should be based on assessment with the doctor.” The legal age of consent in the State is 17.
Under the scheme, women can avail of free contraceptives such as the pill, contraceptive patches and contraceptive rings, as well as long-acting contraceptive implants, injections and intrauterine devices, known as a coil.
The cost of emergency contraception, known as the morning-after pill, as well as GP and doctor appointments to discuss contraceptive options and repeat prescriptions are covered by the scheme, however, condoms are not available
The NWC has urged the expansion of the scheme so that it is available beyond GPs.
“Pharmacist access is already a feature of women’s contraceptive care in the US and Canada,” it said.
“It is also vital that the scheme is available in all maternity hospitals, not just GP surgeries, so that all women can access contraception as part of post-abortion or postnatal care.”
In its analysis of the budget, the NWC broadly welcomed many measures, particularly in childcare and healthcare, but said “one-off supports” would not protect women long-term from poverty and inequality.
While the €121 million additional funding promised for childcare was a “significant breakthrough”, parents are still shouldering huge costs, it argued.
Childcare costs average €187 a week nationally and €222 in Dublin, it pointed out, adding that even after the budget measures “many parents (are) paying extraordinarily high fees”.
The lack of affordable childcare is “the single biggest barrier to women’s equality in the workplace,” it said.
The NWC praised measures to bolster mental healthcare, but said it was disappointed at a lack of investment in specialist perinatal mental health services and progress on Ireland’s first mother and baby unit.
“Young women are disproportionately affected by depression, anxiety and eating disorders,” it said.
On lone parents, overwhelmingly women, it described the increase of “only €2″ in the qualified child increase as “hugely disappointing.”
“Government also failed to increase the Working Family Payment beyond the one-off payment,” it said.
“It is well established that these payments are the most effective way of addressing poverty.”
Furthermore, it was “deeply regrettable” that additional funding in the Budget would not finance the number of domestic violence refuge units needed in Ireland, under the Istanbul Convention, it said.
The NWC has called for domestic violence accommodation in every county.
“Domestic abuse is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children,” it said.
“On average, 180 women and 275 children seek emergency accommodation every month and in 2021 more than 3,000 requests for refuge could not be met by services.”
The cost-of-living crisis has “made it even more difficult for women survivors of domestic abuse to leave their abusers,” it said.