Monday, March 10, 2014

International Women’s Day: The struggle for Equality continues - Adams

International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to celebrate women who are active in society; in their communities, trade unions, voluntary organisations and the political institutions of Ireland.

However, it is also a time for reflecting on the serious inequalities that still exist and the fact that in many ways women continue to be second class citizens. A study by the EU agency Fundamental Rights (FRA) on violence against women across the European Union, which was published last Wednesday, found that one third of the women surveyed were victims of sexual of physical violence. A shocking and harrowing fact.

A director FRA said: ‘The enormity of the problem is proof that violence against women does not impact a few women only – it impacts on society every day.’

Significantly the research found that 70% of women in the Irish state who experience sexual and physical violence suffer in silence. The research also found that austerity measures have a devastating effect on female victims of violence with cuts to vital refuge services being made by austerity touting governments, including our own.

The last Fianna Fáil government and the current Fine Gael and Labour coalition have cut core funding for rape crisis frontline services by 16.5% and more cuts are to come. This is unacceptable, dangerous and devastating.

Women have been disproportionality impacted by government imposed austerity measures with cuts to maternity benefits, children’s allowance and an increase in the cost of living.

Despite the progress that has been made in recent decades there is still serious inequality between women and men in the workplace; in employment rights; and in access to education and health.

Women have been failed by the political system where they are continually underrepresented in both the Dáil and the Seanad. Politics remains an unfriendly environment for families and women, a reality that benefits no one.

In this context the Irish government should consider the six recommendations published earlier this week in a report that was conducted as part of National Women’s Council of Ireland’s ‘Women in Politics and Decision-Making’ project.

The report recommends the creation of a family-friendly Oireachtas, including maternity leave for women politicians; paternity leave for all men, including male politicians; Work more business hours and discontinue the practice of all-night debates; Introduce video-conferencing and remote-voting. It also calls for a 40% gender quota for Cabinet appointments; a gender audit of the Oireachtas and establishment of a clear plan, including benchmarks and indicators, for making the institution’s policies and practices more gender sensitive.

Sexual harassment, abuse and domestic violence continue to be a serious problem in the workplace and society. A study carried out by the trade union Unite has revealed that since the start of the economic collapse in the south in 2008 the pay gap between men and women has increased with more than one-fifth of women workers in low paid jobs. 600,000 women are living in deprivation or at risk of poverty across the country.

These are serious problems that go to the heart of the type of society we are and of the kind we want to be.

Irish Republican women, from the very birth of our struggle for freedom and independence, have understood the connection between Irish freedom and equality, and women’s rights. From Ann Devlin to Anna Parnell to Countess Markievicz to Sheena Campbell to Mairead Farrell, whose anniversary was last week, there is an unbroken line of women who sacrificed all in the quest for freedom and equality and justice.

Sometimes their sacrifice is remembered, but more often than not their actions are hidden in the shadows of their male contemporaries. Republican history is littered with instances of women stepping into the fray when the men were either executed or imprisoned, only to be sidelined once more, when the men were released from prison.

I had the great privilege of knowing some of this generation of republican women activists. They were ordinary women, many little more than teenagers, who at a time of great crisis and challenge for our people came forward to stand against injustice and to give leadership.

Theirs was not an easy road. The choices they made were difficult and the consequences for them and their families were significant. In prison they faced isolation, deprivation, brutality, hunger strike and strip searching. Outside of prison they were harassed, threatened, took great risks and some died.

The 1916 Proclamation recognises the rights of women. It opens by addressing Irish men and Irish women and guarantees not just ‘religious and civil liberty”; but also “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. At a time when women in most countries did not have the vote, the government of the new republic would be “elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”.

I often wonder what the men and women of 1916 would think of womens place on the island of Ireland today. They would probably contrast the words of the 1916 Proclamation and the Draft Programme of the First Dáil with the social and economic reality of many women’s lives.

They would contrast the impoverished existence of many women and their families in our inner cities and rural communities. They would actively oppose violence against women.  They would lament the low pay and exploitation of women workers. They would castigate the under-funding of women’s health and family planning services, and the absence of support for quality childcare for the children of the nation. 

Much of women’s work is undervalued and underpaid.  Irish women are still disproportionately concentrated in low-skill, low paid and part-time employment. Older women are more likely to live in social isolation. Inequalities faced by all women in Ireland are magnified for women with disabilities.  

Traveller women face higher poverty, mortality and unemployment levels, and lower levels of educational attainment than their settled counterparts.

Internationally girls and women continue to face additional issues like female genital mutilation and arranged marriages. Practices that must end immediately.

Women on the island of Ireland and all over the world have won many battles for equality over the past century, but there are further battles ahead. The struggle for equality will continue.

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