Women in the home referendum must be postponed
A vote in October would be a missed opportunity and could prove divisive
‘The Government should facilitate a public discussion on the place of women in the home referendum, through a forum like a citizens’ assembly or constitutional convention.’ Photograph: Maxwells
The Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality will meet today to decide whether or not to clear the way for holding a referendum on the place of women in the home on October 26th, the same date as the presidential election.
In order for this to happen the committee will have to decide not to scrutinise the legislation required to hold the referendum to delete Article 41.2 (women in the home) from the Constitution. If it scrutinises the legislation there will not be enough time between now and October 26th.
The committee should use its power to ensure that the referendum does not take place on October 26th. Instead the Government should facilitate a public discussion, through a forum like a citizens’ assembly or constitutional convention.
This process is necessary to ensure that the referendum debate is informed, that the issues surrounding the article can be explored and that concrete proposals can be developed, on which the Government can act on and be held to account.
The considerations of this forum must go beyond what we want to see in our Constitution, and discuss what we need in legislation, policy, and investment to facilitate the women and men make real choices regarding care, family and paid work.
The referendum could instead take place alongside the local and European elections next May. There is no place for sexist and outdated language in our Constitution, this is not a process that can be rushed. Through consultation with our members, I know that this article awakens debate about the complex choices and challenges that many of us face every day.
Roles of women
These issues relate to our understanding of family and home, the roles of women and men, economic supports for parents and work life balance. When considering the contribution of care and carers, discussion quickly moves to adequate provision of supports and time to care and to be cared for, both inside and outside the home. Women disability activists expressed the need to have supported rights and choices with regard to care.
This discussion reveals the extent to which successive governments have not prioritised supports for women and men to balance work and family life, and have made it harder for lone parent families to have any choices with regard to paid work and care. The choices and aspirations regarding care and family life are very different for couples and lone parents who struggle in low paid employment to pay the bills, and those who can afford to support a family on one high income.
Experience of previous referendums shows the manner in which we make change is as important as the kind of change that we are making. If we simply delete the wording there is a real danger that many people will feel that recognition of their value is also being deleted.
If we listen more than we talk, our decisions will reflect our consideration of others
If we do not allow enough time for a transparent, participative and respectful process that recognises people’s complex feelings and identities, there is a danger of it becoming divisive – between people dedicated to working in the home and those who work inside and outside the home; divisive between those who do unpaid work that contributes to society and those who do paid work; and divisive between families and between women and men who work in the home.
This will mean considering issues that the National Women’s Council of Ireland has long campaigned on – providing comprehensive family leave, including maternity leave, paid paternity leave and a period of well-paid parental leave; investing in publicly subsidised, quality, affordable childcare; providing recognition for care through a universal pension system.
If we listen more than we talk, our decisions will reflect our consideration of others as well as our hopes for ourselves and the kind of Ireland that want to live in.
Recent referendums have offered us a shared path as citizens through participation in the debate and through casting our vote. It will be absolutely critical in this public discussion that the experiences of women in all our diversity are heard. We must listen to those providing care and those who are receiving care.
I want to see constructive change to our Constitution, change that offers the electorate a choice about the kind of Ireland that we want to live in, one that expresses the positive contribution of equality in home, care and work of all kinds, not just the kind of Ireland that we want to put behind us.
Holding a referendum in eight weeks will represent a missed opportunity to listen, and will risk retaining an article which is not fit for an Ireland which aspires to being an equal, inclusive and caring society.
Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), Ireland’s largest women’s membership organisation.