Hear them roar: 20 people on how to make life better for women and girls in Ireland

Ahead of International Women’s Day on march 8th, Róisín Ingle askED 20 women and men for their ideas on how make Ireland a better, fairer place

What still needs to change so that women and girls in Ireland can be equal? On the eve of International Women’s Day we asked a cross-section of women – and some men – for their ideas and thoughts on how make Ireland a better, fairer place. Their answers were varied. And impassioned. They touched on issues from disability to direct provision, from period poverty to parenting, from domestic violence to Traveller’s rights.

They are feminists, and schoolgirls, activists and actors, sportswomen and broadcasters. Hear them roar.

Ailbhe Smyth, feminist activist

One of the most vital and practical things we can do as feminists, as women, as people who believe that freedom and equality matter for everyone, is to keep on roaring and shouting. Yes, we’ve had our victories and changed a lot, but we have many battles still to fight. We urgently need to roar our heads off about the deep and persistent inequalities. Change is not worth its salt when only the privileged can reap the benefits. That’s not equality.

We need to call out the discriminations, the injustices, the marginalisation, the poverty, the violence, the racism, the contempt and damage and hurt that so many women still suffer every day here in Ireland and across the world. Inequalities rooted in class, income, dis/ability, sexuality, ethnicity, age, citizenship, geography and much more.

We need to roar in solidarity with women everywhere and to reach out our hands to women like “us” and not at all like “us”. That roar is a call to action. It calls on us to venture far beyond our comfort zones, and to be brave and generous. But when the basic rights, freedoms and humanity of so many are denied or threatened by toxic global systems, we are right to roar, to resist, to rebel.

Dr Sindy Joyce, Mincéir woman (Irish Traveller) and academic

For my PhD, Mincéiri Siúladh (Irish Travellers walking) I used maps as methodology. I gave young Mincéiri green and red stickers to put on places in Galway where they felt unsafe (red) and places where they felt welcome (green). Nobody will be surprised to learn the maps were mostly covered in red stickers. To make things safer, better and more equal for mincéiri women, I’d like to dismantle some misconceptions: That we are uneducated. That we are under men’s thumbs. That we have no say in our situations. This has not been my experience through my life.

I often get asked by settled people how they can be an ally. The first thing people can do is begin to understand the history of Mincéiri in Ireland and how we’ve been treated. I tell them to think about why suicide rates are six times higher for Mincéiri women. I ask them to reach out. To ask us questions. There are many organisations working all over the country holding Mincéiri events that settled people can come to.

There is misogyny in all walks of life but women from the Mincéiri community face double discrimination. Many of the people I see on social media making racist comments against Mincéiri have never met one of us. If you see us on the street, say hello. Speak to us with dignity and respect. Give us a smile not a scowl.

Sonya Lennon, fashion designer and founder of Dress for Success Dublin

We are entering the wonder years of gender equality. Amazing men and women got us this far when awareness and appetite were low and the cost was high. Amazing men and women will keep us moving towards a society where we can surface and legislate against hidden unconscious bias and legacy structures. A society where men and women know that their sons and daughters will be treated equally and have equal opportunity and equal choices. Together we make can decisions for the 50.43 per cent of the population that is female. That’s a hell of a percentage for a marginalised “minority” group.

Imagine an Ireland where we could all make purchasing decisions based on a market that told us “This company values men and women equally”. Imagine we could know that medical science was as interested in understanding and protecting the female body as it was the male body, which is the current research default. Women have the power, we make 82 per cent of all consumer decisions, we care for the young and the old and we add value with our breadth of context, empathy and understanding. The goal is gender representative decision making at all levels of our society. The next time a group of men makes a decision for everyone, a question needs to be asked – where is the woman in the room, and if she’s not there – which one of you is going to be the woman?

Shubhangi Karmakar, medical student and activist

I refuse to be defined by three tiny words: “person of colour”. Just like “young”, “migrant”, “disabled”, “neurodiverse” or “queer”: these are the airtight boxes that silence our roars. Waking up everyday in boxes of “what I am” without a choice, I learned how to nourish the choices that make us “who we are”. Be available with your time, affable with your word and able with your work. Let vulnerable people trapped in their boxes know you’re a reliable support to reach out to. Face your worst fears and leave your box every once in a while – even sharing when you feel like the smallest person in the room is a unique contribution. Curiosity is irreplaceable, so show interest in everything and everyone – it’s humbling to create spaces to listen, and there’s no better way to learn.

And finally, this International Women’s Day, resolve to rummage all around you to find the roars still going unheard. Be their ally. Give them the pen to write their own stories, or the microphone to be heard as loud and clear as you are.

Joanne O’Riordain, writer and activist

Growing up in Ireland in a small rural community, I’ve always had a sense of pride in who I am and where I am from. My name is Joanne O’ Riordan and I am only one of seven known people in the world living with a rare medical condition known as Total Amelia, meaning born without limbs. I often say to my friends that having a disability is a bit like climate change; we all seem to be aware of it, we all want to do what we can to support people with disabilities, but more often than not we fail to live up to the expectation of proactively doing anything about it.

As we mark International Women’s Day the message I want to try and get across to people is; when you build, think of disability, when you travel think of disability, when you educate, play sport, participate in the arts, develop or make new friends think of people with disabilities, because developing and creating a society that is inclusive and accepting of all people is a society this woman wants to be part of.

Goretti Horgan, activist

The two-child policy – that’s China’s new policy replacing the disastrous one child policy, right? Well, it’s also government policy in the North and across the UK. Since April 2017, a third or subsequent child will not receive any benefits, working tax credits, or universal credit.

A mother can claim benefits for a third child if the child was conceived through rape. She must sign a form and have it cosigned by a social worker, police officer or similar. This “rape clause” has caused as much outrage as the two child policy itself.

It used to be that motherhood was protected from the worst ravages of neoliberalism. Lone parents were not expected to work outside the home until their youngest turned 16. Today, that age is five in Northern Ireland and seven in the Republic.

Now that women north and south have won the right to choose not to continue an unintended pregnancy, its time we fought just as hard for the right to choose to continue that pregnancy. We need to be able to bring a child into the world knowing that we can raise them in dignity, with a stable roof over their head, in a house that’s warm enough and has food. In the North, that starts with getting the two-child policy scrapped.

Claire Hunt, Homeless Period Dublin

There is a scene from the Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake where Katie, a young single mother, is stopped by a security guard and accused of shoplifting. She empties the contents of her handbag and one of the items that spills out is a packet of sanitary pads. Women and girls being unable to access and afford period products was something I never thought about before watching the film. Soon afterwards I got involved with the Homeless Period project in Dublin which is how Homeless Period Ireland came about.

I was shocked at the extent that the issue of period poverty affected people and the stigma that’s attached to periods in general. But since getting involved I’ve seen a changing attitude towards women’s menstrual health and wellbeing. Local businesses are providing donation points for products. Volunteers give up their time, energy and expense to make deliveries.

Shamrock Rovers provide free period products in their women’s toilets. South Dublin County Council were the first to pilot free products in all their public buildings which launched on International Women’s Day last year to great acclaim. Period poverty should not exist in a country as wealthy as ours. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Louise McSharry, broadcaster

I dream of a future where little girls (or boys) aren’t taught that their bodies are where their value lies. Where my friend’s five-year-old daughter doesn’t tell her mom she doesn’t want dessert because her thighs are “too big”. She doesn’t say “thighs” of course, because she doesn’t know that’s what they’re called. I want to live in a world where people don’t say things like “she doesn’t have the type of body to wear that dress” or “You look great, have you lost weight?” or “I’m not eating bread, I’m trying to be good”. As though fat women are only allowed to wear shapeless tunics, that the less space you take up the better, or that you’re bad if you eat bread with your dinner.

These comments are toxic and our daughters hear them. They learn from the moment they understand the spoken word that some bodies are a problem, and if they’re not careful they’ll end up with one of the bad ones. They learn that if they have a problematic body that it’s their fault and they should be ashamed of it. They’ll learn that they’re only worth something if they have the right type of body. They learn that they’re worthless. They deserve better.

Hear Them Roar: On the eve of International Women’s Day, 20 people sound-off about how we can all make life better for women and girls
Back row from left: Shubhangi Karmakar, Sindy Joyce, Claire Hunt, Ailbhe Smyth, Lucy Keaveney, Aoife Martin, Louise McSharry, Sonya Lennon, Sean Cooke, Siobhan McSweeney and Precious Matumba. Front: Finian Murphy, Georgia Norton, Joanne O’Riordan and Simone George. Photograph: John Ohle 

Kellie Turtle, stand up comedian and activist

I’ve been involved in feminist activism for over 10 years and it’s incredible how much has changed in that time. Language that feminists introduced into public discourse that were seen as fringe ideas are now part of the mainstream.

I remember the first time I said “rape culture” in a radio discussion on gender based violence, and had to explain it to an incredulous host. A decade later and this concept formed part of the underlying value base of the North’s independent review of sexual crime by retired judge Sir John Gillen.

I am happy with the progress, but I get frustrated with people who act like women should be grateful that some things have changed. A few dents in the armour of patriarchy and suddenly we’re being unreasonable for demanding more.

I’ll never assume the gratitude that the establishment expects of us because we fought for every bit of progress we’ve made, and our foremothers fought even harder in tougher conditions. When you look at how far we have yet to go, we’re really only getting started.

Anna Geary, broadcaster and camogie star

In a world where the term “fit” had taken on many meanings, my hope is that women (and men for that matter) everywhere begin to develop a healthy, realistic view of how a “fit” body should look. I welcome the day where women and girls can view their bodies in terms of what they can do, rather than just merely how they look. You are more than a jean size.

Sport and exercise empower us to be strong, and brave, and driven. Sport teaches us to bounce back from setbacks. To keep going. We learn to believe in ourselves even when others doubt us. Sport teaches us that it’s okay to fail because failure is not a weakness. It shows we had the courage to try.

We do not need to conform to the expectations placed upon us by society, news organisations or social media when it comes to sport or fitness.

Sometimes life leaves us sweaty. It can be unflattering and unfiltered. It’s raw, and passionate. My body wobbles and jiggles, but I am a fit and strong woman. I am real. Let’s stand, men and women together. Let’s change the narrative around our bodies.

Jordanne Jones, actor and activist
 

My name is Jordanne Jones and I’m 19 years old. I have short brown hair, always have. A bump on my nose, always have. Sallow skin, always have. And I’m a big loud feminist. Haven’t always. I’ve always been a feminist, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always cared for women’s rights. I wasn’t always a scared feminist. Fighting for my life during the Eighth amendment referendum made me that way. I wasn’t always a vocal feminist because the boys in my class didn’t have time for that. I wasn’t always an angry feminist, the priest that undermined me on my confirmation day made me one of those. I wasn’t always a loving feminist, watching my sister grow made me that way. I wasn’t always a proud feminist, watching people like Anna Cosgrave and Rosita Sweetman made me proud.

I wasn’t always a doubtful feminist, the far-right propaganda made me that way. I’m a feminist because I’m scared, I’m a feminist because I’m angry, I’m a feminist because I’m proud. I am an experienced feminist and to the women and men that brought me on that journey, thank you.

Because of all of you, I am now a big loud feminist and I always will be.

Lucy Keaveney, equality campaigner and co-founder of the Markievicz School

I carried out a series of surveys monitoring female representation on radio between 2010 and 2019. The results were disheartening. The average presence of women on RTÉ current affairs programmes ranged from 22 to 28 per cent. On Newstalk it was 17 to 22 per cent. Matt Cooper’s programme on Today FM came in at 21 per cent. There were obvious patterns. More men, for example, were interviewed on Fridays. Men dominated on economic and financial issues, while women feature more on items about caring issues or as victims. All three national stations draw from a narrow Dublin-based pool of pundits, with the same voices recurring. Not only diversity, but originality is the problem here.

A gender equality officer is a basic requirement to address the problem. Unconscious bias training is a priority. An authority such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland needs to oversee their policies and make station managers accountable for equality issues. Gender quotas should also be implemented to speed up the process.

There is also the need for new voices, to bring in the excluded from the margins. Women are almost 51 per cent of the population, and yet are treated as a marginalised group. By achieving adequate representation in the media, women may open up spaces for other groups as well, ensuring that rights, unlike privileges, are shared by all.

Finian Murphy, dad and marketing director at Core

I first heard the term “working mum” early in my career, but rarely do I hear about a “working dad”. The expectation can remain that men act as the breadwinners and someone else is responsible for the kids. Despite efforts to improve gender equality in the workplace, a serious gender gap remains at home. Men can help to shrink this gap, and flexible working arrangements are a good starting point. Research from the European Commission highlights that 70 per cent of workers in Ireland are able to avail of flexible working arrangements. These include reduced hours, working from home or variable work hours (eg starting late). 40 per cent of workers avail of these options, but it tends to be mostly women. The same research also shows that only 31 per cent of men have taken, or even considered, taking parental leave.

I am fortunate to work with a company that facilitates flexible work while promoting gender equality. This enables me to do the school drop off or prepare the family dinner while ensuring I deliver projects and hit deadlines. I bring more care, empathy and patience to my work – skills I have developed from family time.

Work culture is now far more accepting of the “working dad”, and men can benefit personally and professionally from spending time caring. In turn, this provides more space in organisations for women, more empathetic workers and communities with greater gender balance.

Aoife Martin, transwoman and activist

I came out as trans on International Women’s Day in 2016. It wasn’t intentional that I chose that day to begin telling people that I was transgender. I didn’t even register the fact that it was International Women’s Day, so caught up was I in this life-changing act of revelation. But looking back it seems appropriate, karmic almost, because International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate all women – including transwomen. Across the world we see the rights of trans women being eroded, from the so-called Bathroom Bills in the US to the toxic row over self-ID in the UK, to the ongoing debates over transgender women in sport.

Navigating such a hostile world is often difficult and dangerous and not all of us make it. If was to ask for one thing on this International Day for Women, it’s this: treat transwomen and transgirls with kindness. Respect their identities. Honour their pronouns.

We are part of the same patriarchal society that keeps all women down but we are also part of a cis-normative society that is designed to thwart us at every turn. Help us to break the cis-tem.

Precious Matumba, youthwork volunteer

Hats off to the women keeping it together for their families even when faced with the toughest daily challenges. In particular, I have my head bowed to the women living in direct provision who go about their days with smiles on their faces. I am one of those women. I live in the Mosney Direct Provision Centre in Co Meath. I am not going to be scathing about the system itself. I’d rather dwell on the more pragmatic steps I believe could make life easier for everyone. As women, we face numerous challenges while trying to raise families in direct provision. Nothing is more heartbreaking than watching your child cry because all they want is a regular childhood, a chance to interact with other “normal kids” without having to worry about the stigma attached to life in direct provision.

A reminder: Those of us who live in direct provision are human beings too. Most centres are geographically isolated and this is enough to make us feel like outcasts. In direct provision all we have is each other and hardly any outside acknowledgement that we exist here too.

Could you sit down for a cup of tea with a woman in direct provision? Ask “how are you?” Hear her story? Or reach out to an organisation that could put you in touch with one of us? Such simple interactions are not the only changes we need in order to break down social barriers and stigma. But they are a start.

Georgia Norton, schoolgirl and activist, aged 10

In September 2018 I was elected to my school’s Student Council. I wanted to use my place to try to change the school uniform rules so girls were allowed to wear trousers to school. At that time, we had to wear a pinafore. I didn’t like it when I sat in assembly on the ground. On play dates in a pinafore you couldn’t climb trees or hang on the monkey bars. At Student Council, I asked for permission to wear trousers to school. My teachers helped me prepare a survey to find out if other girls would like the choice. My campaign slogan was “equal rights no more tights”. Ninety-two per cent of the school children said yes to choice.

Eight months later the school principal called me to her office and told me that the Board of Management had agreed to allow girls at my school to wear trousers. I was so happy.

I know a lot of girls voted yes but will never wear trousers. The important thing is they voted for everyone to have the choice. There are many places in the world where people don’t have as many choices as we do. My advice is: be brave and follow what you believe in to make the world more equal.

Sean Cooke, chief executive White Ribbon Ireland

Even within family environments where equality is respected and encouraged, outside influences and stereotypes are hard to challenge. Social media and access to pornography have all influenced attitudes to sex, consent and equality. We need to talk about all of this with our our sons, with our daughters. And with each other. One of the best ways for men to support women is to take time to reflect on our own behaviours and attitudes. By talking we can identify aspects that need to change, and take action. This does not need to be a major change at a societal level, but if it brings change in your partner’s or children’s lives, or indeed your own, you have then started a process.

The White Ribbon Campaign involves men championing the change in attitudes and behaviours necessary to end violence against women. This requires confidence, courage and empathy. And a simple pledge to “never commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women”.

Ciara Fanning, president of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union

Growing up is difficult for everyone. Growing up as a young woman has a unique set of challenges. The biggest is being simultaneously sexualised and shamed for our own burgeoning sexual expression. I wish I could say that the scene from Sex Education, where the girls bond over their shared experiences of sexual assault and slut shaming, was just Netflix and not an accurate reflection of real life. But it is real life for us. We grow up looking at #IBelieveHer protests, knowing we’ll be asked what we were wearing in situations ranging from the uncomfortable to the very dangerous.

The media and society have only started to take consent seriously. Consent education has been introduced at third level, but even this has been subject to criticism. And third level is too late. Consent barely factors in sex education at most primary and secondary schools.

Students of all genders deserve a sex education curriculum that teaches us what we really need to know: sexual health, sexual joy, consent and respect.

Education is the answer to double standards and slut shaming – but we must prioritise it, and we must value our young women (and young men) enough to make the necessary changes.

Siobhán McSweeney, actor, Derry Girls star and writer

I’d like to talk to heterosexual men. Gender parity isn’t paying for half the big supermarket shop. It’s also recognising what needed to be bought. Making your partner a cup of tea in bed today isn’t enough. Figure out if ye have enough tea bags for the week. And whether ye need to buy more milk because the kids will be having cereal tomorrow morning. Recognise that as well as having her own life, career, thoughts and hopes, she also has to spend much of her limited free time on emotional labour trying to preempt any problems that may come up.

Nobody enjoys being the one to remind you about your sister’s birthday. Women aren’t naturally “better” at certain things. They do them because they’ve learned if they don’t cook, and clean, and plan the lunches, and organise the after school pick ups, then it doesn’t get done. No one enjoys the laundry. And if they say they do, they’re lying.

They do it because they know if they do it themselves, it will get done, without mess, without something or someone going on fire, and without the need for praise.

Emotional labour. It’s a thing. Share it. Don’t let the patriarchy infantilise you.

Sit down and have a chat about all the work your partner actually does. You will be surprised and hopefully moved to action.

Simone George, human rights lawyer and activist

I get to do interesting work. I’ve travelled the world and I’ve nurtured great friendships, family and lovers. I have the strength found only in vulnerability that leads to the joy and heartbreak of being fully alive. I own my own power tools and I know how to use them. This is because I am the generation whose parents, Gloria Steinem says, began to raise their daughters more like sons. But, because few had the courage to raise their sons more like their daughters, I have also been harassed, assaulted and treated unequally.

In my work in men’s violence and abuse of women I see the worst for all of us in a culture that denies boys this emotional wholeness in exchange for dominance and their silence about it. At best it limits their lives, keeps them disconnected and leaves ours lonely for our fellow men.

So, I’ve stopped trying to break the glass ceiling. In fact, I do not consent to dominance culture in any of its forms – gender, income inequality, sexuality or race. I think that the most powerful practical thing we can do to make life better for women and girls is to raise our boys with their innate femininity intact. Then we will all be free.

Photographs: John Ohle