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Analysis The rights of women and girls in Ireland have come a long way - here's how far

Emma Bowie & Oileán Carter-Stritch look at how women’s rights have improved in this country, on International Day of the Girl.

LAST UPDATE | 11 Oct 2022

TODAY MARKS 10 years since the launch of International Day of the Girl. For many today is a day to celebrate all the strides made toward girls’ rights. However, we know that many issues still need to be addressed regarding the challenges globally that so many girls face.

We only have to turn on our televisions or look at social media to see that for every win in the fight for gender equality, there is a battle raging on in another part of the world.

Recent developments coming from places like Iran bring home how celebrating days like today is bittersweet and can help us remember the importance of global solidarity in the fight for gender equality.

anti-hijab-protests-for-mahsa-amini-iran A young Iranian woman at a protest in recent weeks in Iran. Protestors have faced a violent police crackdown after the death of Mahsa Amini. ABACA / PA Images ABACA / PA Images / PA Images

Nonetheless, in Ireland, over the last 10 years, we have seen significant changes, from a constitutional and policy point of view with a referendum to pass a bill allowing same-sex marriage and a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment legalising abortion in the same decade.

We have witnessed the development of laws to protect people online, tackling period poverty and gender-based violence. We have seen the Irish government take gender equality more seriously by establishing a Committee on Gender Equality following recommendations made by a Citizens’ Assembly.

irelands-gay-marriage-vote Marriage equality: A woman cycles past a marriage equality mural in the Liberties. PA PA

Irish society has also experienced cultural shifts, from the ‘Me Too’ movement to the first maternity leave of a sitting government minister, to name a few. As part of the celebrations today, we look back at what Ireland has improved over the last 10 years.

Here are Ireland’s 10 strides for improvement in gender equality in that time:

1.    Establishment of International Day of the Girl (IDG) Child

International Day of the Girl began as a revolutionary campaign by Plan International Canada to raise awareness of the distinct challenges faced by girls. In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11 October as the International Day of the Girl Child.

With this designation, girls have been recognised as a distinct cohort and IDG allows us a day to take action against the barriers they face. Each year, Plan International promotes ‘Takeovers’ as a call to action for radical social and political change to tear down barriers of discrimination and prejudice that continue to hold girls back.

Plan International Ireland has facilitated takeovers with various government ministers, business leaders, and notably, in 2021, with the Taoiseach – a role never held by a woman here. These takeovers have allowed Plan International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel members to raise the issues affecting girls in Ireland and worldwide.

2.    Overhaul of Relationships and Sexual Education (RSE) curriculum (2019 – present)

The provision of comprehensive RSE throughout all stages of education is fundamental to the realisation of sexual and reproductive rights.

The Department of Education’s proposed overhaul aims to remedy the information gaps left by a 20-year-old syllabus following a nationwide review of RSE in 2019 that characterised students’ experience of sex education as “too little, too late, and too biological.”

Hopefully, the new curriculum will help address the misinformation that 85% of young Irish people currently encounter. The consequences of this are borne particularly by girls and young women, who are at increased risk of STIs, unwanted pregnancies, and gender-based violence. 

3.    Increased number of girls studying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and initiatives to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers

Over the past 10 years, the number of girls taking Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at second and third-level education has been gradually rising.

Statistics from the State Examinations Commission show an increase in female participation in Higher Level STEM subjects at Leaving Cert level over the past five years, with girls constituting 63% of biology students, 60% of chemistry students, and 50% of mathematics students in 2021.

A 2021 survey of Irish girls’ attitudes towards STEM by ‘I Wish’ also reveals that promisingly, 97% of girls reject the stereotypical belief that STEM is more suited to boys. 

4.    The introduction of measures to tackle period injustice 

Ever since motions to mitigate period poverty was proposed by the Irish Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in March 2019, the issue of period justice has been gaining traction in our political arena and public consciousness.

With 61% of Irish girls aged between 12 to 19 missing school as a direct result of their period, menstrual equity is being increasingly understood as an issue that goes to the core of gender equality and girls’ access to education.

differentmenstrualpadstamponsandskincareproductsonwooden Shutterstock / New Africa Shutterstock / New Africa / New Africa

Measures taken to address the financial inaccessibility of period products include the pioneering campaign to provide free period products in Dublin City Council-owned buildings, Lidl Ireland’s commitment to providing free products in their stores nationwide and the Department of Higher Education’s pilot initiative to roll out free, sustainable products across further education and training colleges.

While these measures have gone some way to alleviating the barriers to accessing essential products, they only mark the beginning of a much wider conversation on how we can eradicate stigma for all people who menstruate in Ireland.

With the Free Provision of Period Products Bill resting on the legislative back-burner since February 2021, much still remains to be done in order to achieve a truly transformative end to period poverty, a feat accomplished earlier this year by our Scottish neighbours. 

5.    Turn off the Red Light Campaign and the Criminal Law Sexual Offences Act 2017 (2011 – 2017)

The National Women’s Council characterises prostitution as an “explicitly gendered form of exploitation and gender-based violence.” For this reason, the Turn off the Red Light (TORL) campaign, which led to the enactment of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act in 2017, can be regarded as a significant success for the rights of Irish girls to be free from sexual exploitation, research published by the Immigrant Council of Ireland in 2009 found that 11% of women who were trafficked into or through Ireland over a 21 month period were children at the time.

In addition to criminalising the purchase of sexual services, the 2017 Act enhanced laws to combat sexual exploitation and abuse of children, including strengthened offences to tackle child sexual exploitation material.

With the Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2022 set to remove the final legislative hurdle to Ireland’s ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (22 years after signing the protocol!), adequate legal protections are in force to protect girls and young women from sexual exploitation. 

6.    Increased representation of women in sport 

There’s no better way to see just how far women’s sport has come than to tap into the excitement today ahead of one of the most important games for the Irish women’s soccer team tonight. Vera Pauw’s girls in green face off against Scotland in a World Cup playoff.

katie-mccabe-celebrates-after-the-game Katie McCabe-celebrates-after-the-game: 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup Qualifier Group A, Senec, Slovakia Slovakia vs Republic of Ireland Ireland’s Katie McCabe celebrates after the game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The Irish Women’s Hockey team in the World Cup, Rachel Blackmore winning the Grand National, Katie Taylor’s Gold and unifying belts, Stephanie Roche’s shortlisting for the FIFA Puskas Award, Kellie Harrington’s Gold medal are all great examples of Irish women excelling at sports in recent years.

The recent slogan of the 20×20 campaign “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it” perfectly illustrated the power of women’s representation in sports. The 20×20 campaign achieved a 20% increase in media coverage of women in sports, female participation at all levels of sports and attendance at women’s games and events. Over 76 national sporting bodies and 500 clubs including 24 different sports have signed the 20X20 charter in the last two years. 

Women’s All Ireland Finals’ record attendance has been broken seven times in the last 10 years. We have a plethora of female sporting role models. Things are changing for women in sports and young girls are claiming the recognition that they deserve.

7.    Free contraception for 17-30 year old women

We have come a long way since the Contraceptive Train of 1971, where members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement travelled to Northern Ireland to purchase contraceptives in protest of laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives and refused to hand them over to authorities on arrival at Connolly station.

neil-mccafferty-reporters-portrait-landscape Journalist Nell McCafferty in 1984. She was one member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement who travelled to Belfast by train to contraceptives as a protest. Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Several failed attempts to legalise contraceptives eventually led to a bill which made the contraceptive pill available but only to married couples. Eventually, in 1985, condoms were available for purchase in the Republic for all.

In 2022, contraceptives were made free to all 17-25s in Ireland. No longer is there shame and stigma associated with STI prevention, reducing unsafe abortions, maternal health and child survival. No longer are the family planning preferences of the Catholic Church more important than the health and safety of Irish girls and women.

8.    Constitutional changes; The repeal of the 8th Amendment making abortion legal (2018) and the legalisation of same-sex marriage (2015)

Abortion has always been a necessary medical right for women in Ireland, despite being illegal since 1861. The Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983, establishing equal rights for the unborn child and the mother. There are countless cases of women being denied safe abortions and aftercare in Ireland – far too many to mention here.

The Repeal of the Eighth Amendment in 2018, following years of protests and advocacy, has undoubtedly saved countless lives and enabled young women to make their own decisions about their reproductive lives.

In similar Constitutional significance, the 2015 referendum to permit same-sex marriage paved the way for a more liberal Irish society and addressed one area of injustice against the LGBT+ community.

Ireland only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993. However, 22 years later, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. This referendum demonstrated that feminist activists in Ireland not only sought gender equality but were willing to fight for the realisation of human rights for all.

2352015-gay-marriage-equality-referendums 23/5/2015. Marriage Referendum. Rory O Neill also known by his stage name as Panti Bliss before the official announcment on the vote in Dublin. Rolling News Rolling News

The importance of supporting young people was further recognised in the first LGBTI+ youth strategy in Ireland (and the world) launched in June 2018. These constitutional changes will undoubtedly shape girls’ and young women’s understanding of how Ireland values equality and establishes concrete safeguards for fundamental human rights.

9.    Legislation recognising new forms of Gender Based Violence (GBV) 

According to Women’s Aid, since 1996, 249 women and 18 children have died as a result of domestic and gender-based violence. Nearly one in three women in Ireland have been subject to controlling behaviour by a partner, including economic violence, abusive and threatening behaviour.

123 Zero Tolerance 28/06/2022 Taoiseach Micheal Martin and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee at the launch of the Zero Tolerance strategy and accompanying action plan to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Sasko Lazarov / Rollingnews Sasko Lazarov / Rollingnews / Rollingnews

In 2022, a Zero Tolerance plan on domestic, sexual and gender based violence was published and with this plan, children are being recognised as victims of domestic violence, not witnesses for the first time. Furthermore, coercive Control became illegal in 2019, with 50 prosecutions made so far.

The criminalisation of image-based sexual abuse, known as ‘Coco’s Law’ in 2020 was also long-awaited legal protection for victim-survivors, following significant grassroots campaigning and a survey by Plan International Ireland that found that 67% of young women have experienced harassment or abuse on social media.  

While gender-based violence is still present in Ireland, women and girls are slowly receiving the legislative support they need.

10.    Increased representation of women in politics and public life

Women in Ireland gained the right to universal suffrage in 1922. Despite this, women are still greatly outnumbered in Irish politics. Prior to the 2016 General Elections, gender quotas were introduced which resulted in a 6.5% increase in seats held by women. However, the gender quota did not apply to local elections and so only minor improvements were observed and representation from racial and ethnic minorities remains low.

At a global level, Plan International found that those who identify as LGBTIQ+ and those from minority backgrounds were found to hold more negative views about political leadership. In 2021, Helen McEntee became the first Cabinet Minister in the history of the state to take maternity leave highlighting the need to address barriers for women in politics further. 

The establishment of the Joint Committee of the Oireachtas on Gender Equality to consider the recommendation on the Report of the Citizens Assembly on Gender Equality is another very positive step.  

siofra Irish Judge Síofra O’Leary was elected as President of the European Court of Human Rights @IrishRepCoE @IrishRepCoE

Last month, Irish judge Síofra O’Leary was elected President of the European Court of Human Rights, making history as the first woman to ever hold the role. Irish women continue to be strong, positive role models for girls and young women all over the world, inspiring them to become the change they wish to see in their societies.

Emma Bowie and Oileán Carter-Stritch are members of Plan International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel. See what Plan International Ireland is doing to mark 10 years of International Day of the Girl; visit 

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Emma Bowie & Oileán Carter-Stritch
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