My election as Chairperson of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and that of a renewed Executive Board, comes at an exciting time, as the vibrant feminist movement in Ireland is experiencing a huge resurgence, particularly among younger women. As the representative national women’s organisation in Ireland, the NWCI is leading the work for change in women’s equality.
Over recent years we have seen a number of successes not least the introduction of gender quotas, and the provision of two weeks paid paternity leave, which are significant and welcome.
We need to increase the pace of change for women’s equality in Ireland though, and this will be a key challenge throughout the term of the new Board, until 2018. An important part of our accountability to the NWCI membership is to assess and report on the ongoing impact of the organisation’s policy and advocacy work.
The NWCI’s primary objective for the foreseeable future will be repealing the Eighth Amendment and ensuring that, through legislation, women have access to the full range of essential reproductive health services. We have received a strong mandate to prioritise this issue through the members’ consultation to produce our new Strategic Plan. Through this process it was clear that the time for incremental change on abortion is long gone. We know that restrictive laws do not stop abortion, but they do cause immense hardship to women forced to travel, and even more so to women who cannot travel. The NWCI will play a part in supporting women’s voices to be heard by holding a series of regional seminars and it is vital that all women take part. In particular I hope that disabled women will participate in these conversations, and as Chairwoman I will work hard to facilitate and deliver this.
Another priority for the NWCI over the next years will be the issue of men’s violence against women. Research shows that one in five women in Ireland will experience domestic or sexual abuse at the hands of a male partner, yet there is widespread unwillingness to accept, less still, address this crisis in our society, even as women continue to be murdered by their partners or former partners. We have well-resourced road-safety campaigns, which challenge all of us who use the roads to play our part in reducing injury and death. Where is the equivalent public-awareness strategy to challenge the level of violence against women? Minister Frances Fitzgerald told NWCI members at our recent AGM that she has secured funding for such a drive. We await its announcement with huge interest. The Government has signed up to the Council of Europe’s ‘Istanbul Convention’ on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence but we need to resource the full implementation of the Convention as a matter of urgency. This will involve increasing supports for frontline services and the Gardai in order to provide women with safety and protection and to hold perpetrators to account. In addition the Irish Observatory on Violence Against Women, which is chaired by the NWCI, will be requesting funding to research and produce media guidelines for reporting on cases of men’s violence against women.
While healthcare, and ending violence against women are crucial for women’s equality, so too is the availability of accessible, affordable, quality childcare. Affordability of childcare has been consistently ignored by successive governments and parents have been left struggling to pay costs which would be unacceptable most other EU member states. As the primary responsibility for childcare in Ireland continues to be placed on women, the lack of affordable childcare continues to be a key obstacle to women’s full participation in employment and in public and civil life. Women are making decisions which affect their career progression, working hours and types of employment based on juggling expensive childcare and this cannot continue. Ireland needs to set itself on a course to provide a sustainable childcare infrastructure for children, for parents and for those who work in the sector, many of whom are women. Again, there are positive noises coming from government on this issue, but we need to see considerable progress in Budget 2017, to come even one step closer to the Scandinavian system promised by the last government.
Of course, reproductive health care, violence and childcare are not the only barriers to women’s equality in Ireland, but addressing them would go a long way toward achieving a truly feminist future. Full equality will not be achieved as the afterthought of an economic system; it is the bedrock of a thriving, inclusive society. It is within our imagination to achieve gender equality across our society. We should all play our part to make it a reality.
Find out how to become a member of NWCI and read our new strategic plan on nwci.ie
By Frances Byrne