Budget 2017 will be unveiled tomorrow. In March next year Ireland's performance on the protection of women's human rights will be assessed by the United Nations. The former will have a direct effect on the latter.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Ireland will have to explain to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) committee how it has sought to foster gender equality and to protect women's and girls' rights. This could prove quite a challenge to Irish officials, as the evidence, particularly with regard to social and economic rights, points to significant shortcomings in Ireland's gender and human rights record.
Retrospective analysis of Irish austerity budgets, in particular, highlights the gendered nature of Irish fiscal policy, as successive budgets disproportionately disadvantaged women.
According to the think tank Tasc, the European Union Silc (survey on income and living conditions) reports and the Department of Social Protection’s ex-post budget analysis, lone-parent households, the vast majority of whom are headed by women, were hardest hit by Irish budgets.
For instance, in its “social impact assessment” of Budget 2013, the department found that “households worst affected by the measures are those with children, in particular lone-parent families.”
Similarly, in an analysis of Budget 2011, Tasc found “the category most negatively affected by the measured Budget 2011 changes is the ‘single with children’ group, which lost 5 per cent of income on average, compared with a 1.3 per cent loss of income in the high-earner, double-income households.”
Multiple deprivation factors
It is therefore not surprising to find that poverty increased exponentially for lone parents since the onset of the economic crisis, peaking at a staggering 63.2 per cent deprivation level in 2013. To put this into context: lone parents’ deprivation level was twice as high as deprivation experienced by the general population, and meant one parents experienced multiple deprivation factors, such as not being able to pay bills or not being able to heat their home.
Clearly, then, Ireland has not fulfilled the Cedaw injunction on countries party to the convention to take “in particular in the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women”.
Successive Irish budgets disadvantaged women, especially women who were lone parents, disproportionately. The Equality Budgeting Campaign repeatedly called, during this period, for the introduction of equality and human rights analysis to be conducted before the budget is voted on, precisely to avoid the increasing poverty and inequality we always retrospectively found affecting women and other marginalised populations.
Much damage to Ireland’s reputation in terms of the protection of women’s rights, and of course the immediate impact of those subject to gendered fiscal policy, especially lone parents and their children, could have been avoided if the measures we proposed had been adopted then.
The Cedaw process now at least affords the opportunity to take stock of the last number of years, to assess the impact Irish budgets have had on the state’s obligation to protect women’s human rights, and to then act decisively.
Fortunately we have a commitment in the programme for partnership government to introduce equality and gender-proofing of the budget. An Oireachtas committee on budgetary scrutiny has already been set up, and the Government is planning to establish a budget office. Such reforms and commitments are to be welcomed, and must now be implemented as a matter of urgency.
Although Budget 2017 is unlikely to see the full benefits of this recent Government commitment to reform, it should at least include an indicative analysis of the likely gender and equality impacts of proposed measures. Following this, the necessary infrastructure to fully equality and gender-proof Budget 2018 must be developed and brought into operation.
Since the State has an international, legal responsibility under Cedaw to protect the rights of women, including “the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination”, and to do so through the introduction of mechanisms aimed at fostering gender equality, it is now imperative that Ireland fully introduce equality budgeting. The disadvantaging of women by successive budgets must be interrupted by transforming the budget process from a closed affair to a transparent process in which equality and the protection of people’s human rights take centre stage.
If Ireland wants to stave off reputational damage arising from future Cedaw reviews, and is truly committed to its obligations under international human-rights law, it must act swiftly to avoid further disadvantaging women, especially lone parents, and to redress the significant harm successive budgets have wreaked in the lives of already marginalised sections of Irish society. Dr Clara Fischer is an academic based at UCD and a founder of the Equality Budgeting Campaign