Invisibility would undermine carers’ struggle for equity

Abolishing the Constitution’s recognition of caring work done within the family would be a disservice to those doing this work

Family Carers Ireland estimates there are 200,000 family carers, but the means-tested carer’s allowance is only €214 per week for caring for one person. Photograph: Getty Images

Family Carers Ireland estimates there are 200,000 family carers, but the means-tested carer’s allowance is only €214 per week for caring for one person. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The Government has bowed to pressure, and agreed to postpone a referendum on the controversial Article 41.2 of the Constitution. It reads: “… the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Few will defend the reference to women’s “neglect of their duties in the home”. But to abolish the Constitution’s only recognition of the invisible caring work done within the family, primarily by women, would be a disservice to those still doing this work, and to the common good of the society produced and reproduced by it.

The women of my mother’s generation would not be uplifted by hiding their contribution. Neither would those of my generation as we struggle to fit unwaged caring for loved ones around the demands of waged work. Invisibility would not help our struggle for equity, it would undermine it.

The vast majority of women in Ireland are mothers and their family’s primary carers. They are also the poorest. According to One Family, lone parents, overwhelmingly women, head 25.4 per cent of family units with children; 50.1 per cent of those families live in deprivation.

Family Carers Ireland estimates there are 200,000 family carers, but the means-tested carer’s allowance is only €214 per week for caring for one person. And it is well known that carers have to struggle to get basic supports that should automatically be theirs.

Ignored

Reviews, from the Constitutional Convention to the Government’s own task force, have recommended amending Article 41.2, including an explicit reference to caring, rather than abolishing it. The Government never explained why this advice was ignored.

Article 41.2 has never been fully tested, but this could change. Once mothers and other carers are aware that the State is to “endeavour” to keep them out of poverty, they may expect financial support instead of the austerity that has hit them so hard. The cuts and changes to the One Parent Family Payment alone may be a contravention of the Constitution.

Some 62 per cent of mothers, according to a 2017 survey by Amárach Research, would prefer to stay at home with their children, especially in their early years, if they could afford to. Such deeply-felt concerns for children appear in every country we know of. Is the Government worried that such mothers may make demands on it?

Unremunerated caring in the home has also been used to lower women’s wages and status on the job market. In 2014, a Sheehy Skeffington equality tribunal ruling noted that academic women applicants for promotion at NUIG seemed to be disadvantaged when they declared their caring responsibilities. This ruling triggered a movement for pay equity and gender equality in higher education which has now been extended to all grades – from cleaners and administrative staff to lecturers and professors.

Less respected

Gender equality would not be advanced by removing wording which values caring and the person who does it. A minority of women who can afford it would be able to shed the persona of carer, but most would be drawn into more invisibility, as would men who do this work.

Caring would be less respected and less supported, and carers, including waged carers, would be at greater risk of discrimination, impoverishment, dependency and domestic violence.

The spotlight on one Article has brought attention to the gold that’s in the Irish Constitution, reflecting the legacy of revolutionary ideals: the right of all women and men to an adequate means of livelihood; protection against exploitation; the principle that the State should safeguard the economic interests of the “infirm”, “widows”, “orphans” and “the aged”, ensuring that no one is forced by economic necessity to engage in “avocations unsuited to their sex, age or strength”.

Again, the language could be updated, but, most importantly, this Constitution sets down a standard by which we as a society aspire to live. Article 41.2 must be seen in this humane context.

Now that fast-track abolition of caring work from our Constitution has been halted, we can consider this issue fully. We must first hear from the women and men on the frontline of caring, and explore what language can best acknowledge and support their massive contribution to the common good.

Maggie Ronayne is a lecturer at NUI Galway, a trade unionist and a member of the Global Women’s Strike.

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