Fight for Irish women's equality far from over

International Women’s Day tomorrow comes at a pivotal time for women’s rights in Ireland

International Women’s Day tomorrow comes at a pivotal time for women’s rights in Ireland. Events over the last weeks have shone a spotlight on the historical discrimination and misogyny that exists and persists in Irish society, but also on the potential and possibility of a more equal and just future.

Last month, the horrific discrimination and abuse of the women incarcerated and enslaved in the Magdalene laundries was rightly exposed. The nation has witnessed and welcomed the sincere and heartfelt apology by the Taoiseach on behalf of the State, the Government and the citizens of Ireland to all Magdalene women and their families.

The recent constitutional convention debate on article 41, which ascribes to women a life in the home, was a positive example of participative democracy in practice. Delegates overwhelmingly adopted the National Women’s Council’s proposals and recommended to Government the replacement of article 41 with a gender-neutral text that would recognise the value and role of care in our society.

X case


Just before Christmas, almost 21 years after the historic Supreme Court judgment, the Government finally committed to introduce legislation to give effect to the X case and ensure that women with life-threatening pregnancies have access to abortions in Ireland.

In Ireland, International Women’s Day also marks 40 years of women and their organisations coming together in the National Women’s Council of Ireland to campaign for women’s equality.

When the council was set up by a group of feminists chaired by Hilda Tweedy from the Irish Housewives’ Association, Ireland was a very different place for women. Many had to leave work when they married. The sale and distribution of contraception was banned, and women could not legally refuse sex with their husbands. Only three women were members of the Dáil.

Forty years on, we – the women in Ireland – can be proud of what we have achieved. Key milestones on the path for greater equality were the end of the marriage bar in 1973, the liberalisation of contraception in 1991 and the introduction of divorce in 1995.

Joining the EEC/European Union 40 years ago was very good for women as it boosted their rights in relation to equality and employment legislation.

Today, 57 per cent of third-level graduates are women, and over 55 per cent of women are in paid employment. Women have far greater control over their sexual and reproductive health. And women in paid employment have access to 26 weeks of maternity benefit.

Ongoing discrimination

However, women remain discriminated against and the structures in our society have not kept pace with changes in women’s lives.

Leadership in Irish society is bereft of women. Only 16 per cent of TDs are women and they make up just 9 per cent of the boards of our top private companies. Fewer than one in four voices on our news and current affairs radio shows belong to women. And even with legislation for the X case, Ireland will still have one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world.

A significant number of women remain dependent on their husbands for their income and, beyond child benefit, have no access to money in their own right. Despite the increase of women’s participation in the labour market, there is an absence of State support for affordable childcare, with costs among the highest in the EU.

Celebrating 40 years of improving women’s lives in Ireland therefore must also be a renewed invitation to women and men to continue fighting for equality.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland, with its more than 160 member organisations, works to be the main catalyst for change in the achievement of equality between women and men in Ireland. In times of austerity, it is paramount that the needs and aspirations of women be clearly articulated and that women be seen as part of the recovery.

There are promising signs. Many young women – and men – are coming together in youth initiatives, such as the council’s “Y Factor” project, that empower and support young people to become leaders for women’s equality.

This we believe indicates the type of society Irish people want to move into and also how critical the value of feminism is in shaping our future. If we want Ireland to be a different place for women – and men – in the next 40 years, we must all take a proactive role to ensure that the attainment of women’s rights and equality is at the centre of change in our society.

* Orla O’Connor is the director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland