One hundred years ago women fought alongside men to achieve Irish Independence. But what started as the promised Republic that would cherish women and men equally quite quickly turned into a country that told its women their place was “in the home”.
This Ireland was a place where women could not sit on juries or collect their children's allowance. Contraception was illegal, divorce was illegal and the marriage bar was in place. The women's movement, led for many years by the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI), has been at the forefront of driving progressive social change which has changed the lives of women and benefited the whole of society. However, a number of critical barriers remain to achieve full equality between women and men.
Today is Nollaig na mBan, also known as Women’s Little Christmas, the day women traditionally take a rest, get together and celebrate their Christmas while men do the housework. To mark this day the women’s council is launching its breakthrough manifesto for women. This kickstarts its campaign for an historic general election, with the potential to change Ireland’s track record on women’s equality for good.
Since 1918, just 95 women have been elected to Dáil Éireann. Some constituencies have yet to elect a woman to represent them. Ireland currently ranks 86th in the world for women’s participation in national parliaments.
Experience from previous elections shows that when women are on the ticket, they get elected. At the general election in 2011, 15 per cent of the 566 candidates that ran for election were women, and 15 per cent of the 166 elected were women. At the local elections in 2014, there were 22 per cent women candidates and 21 per cent female politicians elected. While these figures are disappointingly the highest numbers of women to ever be elected at either a local or national level, they indicate a good chance that we will achieve the critical mark of 30 per cent women TDs for the next Dáil Éireann.
A critical mass of women in our parliament will be crucial to accelerate the pace of change for women’s equality in Ireland and achieve the promised Republic envisioned in 1916. But it’s not just about numbers. We need to elect a critical mass of women and men who will legislate for policies which support and bring about equality. Today we are asking all candidates to commit to making women’s equality a red flag issue for their election.
By signing up to the breakthrough manifesto, candidates will commit to changing Ireland’s record on violence against women by strengthening legislation, resourcing support services and fully implementing the Istanbul Convention. They will prioritise early years education and childcare by investing in affordable, accessible, quality, publicly subsidised early years care and education to international standards. And they will support full reproductive rights and deliver a referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment from our Constitution to bring Ireland in line with international human rights standards. Crucially, candidates will commit to ending the gender pay gap which stands at 14.4 per cent and tackle precarious work by supporting a living wage. Delivering a robust and ambitious new national action plan for women’s equality requires candidates with a vision to achieve real change.
The council’s more than 180 member groups and thousands of followers will be asking their candidates where they stand on these priorities.
As director of NWCI I cannot contemplate a general election in 2021 where we would still be campaigning for these issues. This is a case of now or never. Take a stand for women’s equality and make sure that as a voter or candidate, you take this opportunity to make the general election of 2016 the breakthrough election for women in Ireland. Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland