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Dublin: 19 °C Tuesday 22 July, 2014

Column: The strides made in gender equality are good, but there’s still a long way to go

Today marks International Womens’ Day, but how far have we really come when it comes to equal rights? Sandra McAvoy says there are plenty of issues that still need to be addressed.

THERE WERE SOME interesting outcomes when the Constitutional Convention discussed women and their roles. The most striking was the vote of 62 per cent of delegates that, while article 40 provides that ‘all citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law’ the Constitution ‘should be amended to include an explicit provision on gender equality’. It was good to see this.

It is now 20 years since the 1993 Report of the Second Commission on the Status of Women recommended a constitutional amendment to prohibit gender discrimination. There is a more sellable spin to underlining equality than to outlawing discrimination. Have we reached a point where gender equality is a given? Aren’t there a few issues we need to address first – like the gender pay gap, exclusions in equal status legislation, gender inequality in the social welfare system, pension rights for women who contributed to that national common good? Let us start the countdown now on how long it will be before a clearly worded amendment on gender equality is put to voters.

‘The role of women’

Gender equality was central to the vote on article 41.2, for which the Forum used the shorthand ‘Role of Women’. Article 41.2.1 lays out how woman’s ‘life within the home’ provides ‘to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’. It is married with the article the State forgot, 41.2.2: the one with the promise that it will ‘endeavour to ensure that economic necessity does not force women into the workplace to the neglect of their duties in the home’; the one that places no financial obligation on it to defend such women against ‘economic necessity’ and is thankfully vague on what the ‘duties’ comprise.

41.2 is considered inadequate for a number of reasons, the most pressing being that it does not reflect the reality of women’s lives when more than half of those with children are in employment. The Convention voted to amend article 41.2.1 by a margin of 88 per cent to 12 per cent (the latter favouring deletion). A massive 98 per cent called for a gender-neutral amendment that would cover all carers in the home and, in a further vote, 62 per cent considered ‘carers beyond the home should be included.’

The importance of care work

Depending on how it were worded (and there’s the rub) such an amendment might be an important step towards recognising not only the central importance to society of all care work but also the need for caring to be seen as men’s as well as women’s responsibility. As the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) pointed out in its submission to the Convention, women do still take on (and sometimes have thrust upon them) primary responsibility for care work, both in the home and in the wider community’. Some 61 per cent of carers are female, they undertake two thirds of all care hours, while 86 per cent of childcare carried is out by women. Recognising the importance of men’s contributions and creating the expectation that they will share caring obligations would be a step forward.

A vote on the levels of obligation article 41.2.2 should place on the state to support carers in the home was divided on the fine detail – but 30 per cent suggested that the State ‘shall support’ them, 35 per cent felt it should ‘provide a reasonable level of support’, and 20 per cent that it should ‘endeavour to support’ them. Against a background of cuts that hit carers particularly hard, it seems unlikely that that vote will carry any weight in the real world.

Women in politics

The Convention also examined whether the Constitution should ‘place a duty on the State to take positive action to enhance women’s participation in politics’. The vote was 49 per cent for and 50 per cent against – so close that, when taken with the evidence of women’s under-representation, it surely behoves the State to introduce the protections necessary to ensure Ireland is a democracy. It cannot call itself one when the interests of more than half the citizens are not represented.

One strange point on a statement by Convention Chair Tom Arnold, dated 13 February, was that ‘according to available research, women are hugely under-represented in public life’, as if something new might pop up to say they are not. Women make up 51 per cent of the population but only 17 per cent of councillors are women (and quota legislation will not apply to local elections), only 15 per cent of TDs are women.

The first essential step identified by the NWCI may be achieved – ‘removing the women in the home clause’, with its implication that woman’s place is in the private sphere. They also called for recognition of active citizenship in community and local organisations, and for citizens to be enabled to initiate referendums – as was the case under the 1922 Constitution.

The elephant in the room

Whether we are talking about the roles of women or gender equality, the giant elephant in the room is the unaddressed 8th amendment, the one that has been used to define women’s rights as equal to those of a fertilised egg, an embryo or a foetus. It is the one that nullifies women’s rights to health and well-being. Alan Shatter admitted during the debate on Clare Daly’s X case legislation that: ‘the right of pregnant women to have their health protected is, under our constitutional framework, a qualified right … This is a republic in which we proclaim the equality of all our citizens but the reality is that some citizens are more equal than others.’

There is tight State control of the issues the Convention will address. It is possible for it (rather than for us as citizens) to bring further issues to its final meeting at the end of November. If it is genuinely to address issues like women’s roles and equality, article 40.3.3 must also be on the agenda.

Sandra McAvoy teaches on and co-ordinates University College Cork’s MA in Women’s Studies Course.

Read: Ireland among worst performers in increasing number of female directors>

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