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Opinion: 'My tiny family is not a family in the eyes of Bunreacht na hÉireann'

Our home is not a family home in the eyes of the law. And this is true of any family which does not have a married couple within it, writes Sinéad Gibney.

Sinéad Gibney Former Director of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission

WHEN YOU THINK of the words ‘breadwinner’ and ‘homemaker’ do you find yourself associating the former with men and the latter with women?

If your answer is yes, then you’re not alone.

Unconscious bias

I teach unconscious bias to people, helping them to identify hidden biases and find solutions to ensure that these are minimised in the workplace. I use online tests to help them identify these biases and it’s rare that people don’t have at least a moderate association of the words male with career and female with family.

It would be difficult to have grown up in Ireland since the establishment of the republic and to not make these kinds of associations. In my opinion, a snapshot of our gender biases is captured in Article 41.2 of our Constitution:

“The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Still in our Consitution

If you are unfamiliar with this particular clause of our Constitution – again, you are not alone. People are shocked when I discuss this in my classes.

Many have never seen it and are truly aghast that in 2018 these words are still in our Constitution. But they are there in black and white, and they absolutely influence our cultural norms.

Biases flow from cultural norms

We all hold biases, we can all raise our own awareness of them and mitigate their impact, particularly in the workplace. But it’s important for us as a society to understand that these biases have their origin in the cultural norms that we practice.

Whenever I read 41.2, I think of Panti Bliss. Not because she reminds me of a woman in the home, but because of her wonderful words in the noble call she put to the Abbey Theatre in 2014:

“I do, it is true, believe that almost all of you are probably homophobes. But I’m a homophobe. It would be incredible if we weren’t. To grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly homophobic and to escape unscathed would be miraculous.”

A referendum on Article 41.2 is planned for the autumn – giving us all a chance to vote to revise its wording to make it gender neutral. Holding a referendum forces conversations that we might not otherwise have.

Women’s experience of bias

I am hoping that this referendum will give us the chance to talk about women’s experience of bias, and sexism, and living in a patriarchal society. And what a year to do it, on the back of repealing the 8th amendment, the “me too” movement, the Belfast rape trial, and amidst the rising volume of women’s voice in our national and global discourse.

For example, I’ll get to discuss how, as a lone parent, I feel particularly aggrieved by this clause. I’ve always thought that as a group, single mothers should stage a national strike on the basis of this article.

And we’ll get to hear from families where women are not the primary carer, where caring is equally shared, where men take on the unpaid care work and women are the breadwinners. We’ll get to reflect on our individual situations. And we will stay woke.

Rich tapestry of family diversity

I would be devastated if, when we look at 41.2, we fail to also look at the next sub-clause, Article 41.3:

“The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”

Whereas this probably reflected Irish society in 1937, it is no longer true that the average family is made up of a married couple and their issue. Instead we have a rich tapestry of family diversity; people parenting alone, cohabiting parents, people sharing parenting in separate homes, families blending with new partners siblings.

My tiny family, which consists of my daughter and myself, is not a family in the eyes of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Our home is not a family home in the eyes of the law. And this is true of any family which does not have a married couple within it.

Inferior

In big and little ways, we continuously remind children in non-traditional families that they are in an inferior situation; from this archaic wording in our Constitution to the posters during the 2015 referendum that told my daughter that “every child deserves a mother and a father”, to the many ways in which our institutions, policies and services fail to consider the needs of families that don’t fit the traditional mould.

So please let’s also open up this discussion on what it’s like for families in Ireland in 2018 and how our Constitution can better reflect their form, function and needs?

Sinéad Gibney is the former Director of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission. She currently provides training and consultancy in the areas of equality and inclusion, and she is the newly selected General Election candidate for the Social Democrats for Dún Laoghaire. The Harvard Implicit Association (unconscious bias) tests can be accessed, for free, at the following link: implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

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About the author:

Sinéad Gibney  / Former Director of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission

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