Orla O’Connor: Women’s rights set for big year

Referendums mark pivotal moment for women’s equality in Ireland

‘The Government will hold a referendum on the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution in May or June. This will be a historic opportunity for all of us in Ireland to ensure the way forward for comprehensive healthcare services for all women and girls, including abortion.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

‘The Government will hold a referendum on the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution in May or June. This will be a historic opportunity for all of us in Ireland to ensure the way forward for comprehensive healthcare services for all women and girls, including abortion.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

 

In 2018 we will be celebrating the centenary of women’s right to vote in Ireland. The Taoiseach. Leo Varadkar, has publicly committed to recognising the centenary year with significant advancements for women’s equality.Tomorrow, on Nollaig na mBan, which traditionally is the day women get together and celebrate their Christmas while the men do the housework, it is a unique opportunity to look at how far women have come in Ireland in terms of women’s representation and the changes we need to make in 2018 for women’s equality.

While Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected in Ireland and the first woman to be appointed to cabinet in 1919, it took another 60 years until another woman, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, became a senior minister. Josepha Madigan recently became only the 19th woman to be appointed Cabinet Minister. Since women’s suffrage was introduced in 1918, the representation of women in the Oireachtas has also increased at only a snail’s pace, with women comprising only 15 per cent of TDs elected in 2011.

However, the introduction of gender quotas for candidates in 2012, as advocated by the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) for many years, increased the number of women TDs to a historic high of 22 per cent following the 2016 general election. All indicators suggest women’s representation in Dáil Éireann is likely to continue to increase over the course of the next elections to reach a critical mass of 30 per cent. We must now replicate the successful gender quota for candidates at the forthcoming local elections and quotas for senior decision-making positions at board level in the public and private sector in our society.

Referendums

When we are celebrating women’s suffrage in 2018, we will also be discussing two referendums for which the voices and lived experiences of women will be absolutely vital.

The Government will hold a referendum on the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution in May or June. This will be a historic opportunity for all of us in Ireland to ensure the way forward for comprehensive healthcare services for all women and girls, including abortion, and for doctors to care for all of their patients without fear of prosecution.

The NWCI has put forward the every woman model for accessible, affordable healthcare options for all women and girls, which highlights that every pregnancy is different and, like all healthcare decisions, pregnancy decisions are private and personal. This complexity has no place in our Constitution. The report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee clearly shows that the party who can best protect a developing life is the pregnant woman, in consultation with her doctor, and not the Constitution.

We are mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces and grandmothers. Every day, we care for our families and loved ones. Valuing this important care work without prescribing specific gender roles will be at the heart of the second referendum scheduled for October on the article on women in the home.

Symbolic statement

The article states that “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 article never reflected the complexity of women’s lives but rather led to restrictions for women’s leadership outside of the home, for example through the marriage bar. A referendum in October will be a chance to include in the Constitution a broad, inclusive symbolic statement about the importance of care and care work done by both women and men in Irish society. This is why the NWCI proposed a gender-neutral wording during the Constitutional Convention which recommended the holding of a referendum on the “woman in the home” article in 2014.

The symbolic importance of such a change in the Constitution should not be underestimated.

However, 2018 will also be the year in which the Government will need to take concrete measures to rectify how care work is recognised, particularly in our pension system, which discriminates against women who took time out from paid work to care for their children or other family members. Many of the women who will celebrate Nollaig na mBan, particularly in rural areas, are the older women from across the country who campaigned over the past years to reverse changes made to the pension system in 2012 that particularly affected their access to pensions.

While the Government recognised these changes were unfair we must continue to campaign for the reforms needed to bring about equality within our pension system. A hundred years on from the introduction of women’s right to vote in 1918, we are at a pivotal moment for women’s equality.

Orla O’Connor is director of the NWCI

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