Feminism in Modern Ireland: Part Two

2 Dec

And so now onto feminism in modern Ireland as it stands in this very moment. In order to recognise why feminism is so important in contemporary Ireland, I will outline a couple of the issues that are still facing women here.

Firstly, as you are a politically engaged audience, we should look at the appalling lack of female representation in Irish politics. It is beyond reproach that women still only make up less than 14% of the Dail, with this figure rapidly declining. Without political representation women end up lacking a say in issues that affect them perhaps more so than their male counterparts. Women’s absence from public life means that basic issues women face everyday are overlooked and overwhelmed because these are issues that white, middle class, older men have little time or understanding of. Furthermore, beyond being underrepresented in the Dail, women also only make up only 17% of council seats and 12% of positions in regional authorities. Women are invisible on every level of social governance, with their voices not only being absent from discussion, but in many cases silenced. Politics ought to represent and reflect the society it serves. Respect for women’s input and women’s existence in the political debate is profoundly lacking in this country and without swift and efficient change, we could see this pattern of political exclusion continue for the next 300 years.

Another different, and yet equally important issue is that of violence against women. One in five women in Ireland report being sexually assaulted as adults. This means that in this audience, there are a handful of women who have had to bear the burden of sexual assault both on their mind and on their bodies. This figure is unacceptable and yet has become a normalized reality for women in modern Ireland. Furthermore, 1 in 5 women in Ireland have been abused by a current or former partner. 1 in 7 women in Ireland, compared to 1 in 17 men, experience severe domestic violence. Women are over twice as likely as men to have experience severe physical abuse, seven times more likely to have experience sexual abuse and are far more likely to experience serious injuries from such violence as men. The high incidence of things like pornography and normalized sexual harassment against women heighten the vulnerability of women to this treatment and also leave many women feeling unable to report assault or violence against them.

In the work that we do with the Irish Feminist Network we come into contact with a number of organisations working to combat violence against women.Though the statistics I mentioned previously may shock you, what might shock you more is the 100% increase in violence against women that has begun over the last few years in Ireland. One woman I was speaking to who works at a domestic violence shelter in Galway has not only had a 100% increase in demand for their services in the last year, but has also had a 17% slash in their budget. This means that though our society is getting more and more violent towards women, we are getting less and less interested in these women’s welfare. It is here where once again women are disadvantaged by not having their voices heard on a political level.

Finally the last issue I will discuss with regard to women in Ireland is women and the workplace. Beyond it being very difficult for women to sustain both their family and work lives (with women ultimately bearing the burden of both primary care, cooking, cleaning and then full time work) women are also profoundly disadvantaged from a financial and representational perspective.

Firstly, women are at a much higher risk of poverty, particularly those over the age of 65. Women earn on average 8% percent less than their male counterparts for exactly the same work. These are women who hold equal qualifications to men, have the same job characteristics and are equally experienced in their job. So, women in this audience, though you may have done well on your leaving cert, be topping the class here at Maynooth, you can almost be guaranteed that your work will be valued less than the man who is sitting beside you. Furthermore the burden of childcare will most likely fall squarely on you and the lack of affordable childcare serves as one of the greatest barriers to women’s full participation in the workplace.

So this is the dire state of affairs for women in Ireland. Though it is far easier to look at other less developed countries and pat ourselves on the back for having some level of progressive legislation with regard to women’s rights, it is clear to see that out respect for gender equality goes out the window when it comes down to the true nitty gritty aspects of everyday life. So, where does feminism come into this? Feminism for me is really a way of life. It’s the reason I am able to get out of bed in the morning, even carrying this heavy burden of statistics and doom and gloom, feminism offers an alternative to this current situation in which women are valued for everything that they are.

When I was a child growing up in Australia in the 90’s there was this huge stranger danger campaign in which they warned children of dangerous individuals who may like to take advantage of them. The government set up a neighbourhood watch program in which people were vetted by social welfare and subsequently allowed to place a sticker on their front door which indicated they were a safe house, should a child feel vulnerable. We all knew that if we were feeling like we were not safe on our walk home from school or if we felt threatened in any way, we could knock on one of these doors and the people inside would be welcoming and provide safety for us.

I know it may sound a bit strange, but in my labeling myself as a feminist, I see myself as one of the people with the stickers on their door. My main aim is to provide a safe environment for women to feel valued and cared about and to allow them to recognise that I am an ally in the fight for women to be treated equally. Feminism for me is not a negative movement, I hold no hatred towards all men (I have a dad, brother and boyfriend, all of whom I love very much) and I am not bitter about the inequality I see in everyday life. I am, however, convinced that this current state of affairs in which women are constantly devalued in every aspect of life is not inevitable. Feminism in modern Ireland is very real and very active and very relevant.

Furthermore, the IFN is by no means the only feminist organisation in Dublin or Ireland and are limited by what we can achieve both from a financial and also time perspective. It is profoundly important for us to be working with other feminist organisations, particularly those working in direct contact with vulnerable groups of women. These organisations include Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Centres across Ireland, Ruhama, Akidwa and the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

So, to end Id like to focus on what you can do. The first step is being here tonight. The fact that you bothered to come along to a discussion on feminism indicates some level of interest, which is to be commended and encouraged. Being a political audience you would recognise that change occurs through leadership and through challenging the status quo. Though you don’t have to identify yourself as feminist I urge you to identify yourself as someone who values women and who recognises their continuous and unending struggle for social and political equality. Join feminist organisations like the IFN or the National Women’s Council of Ireland, volunteer with organisations like Women’s Aid or Ruhama. Speak up when you think women are being disrespected whether it be in the workplace or at a party when someone thinks its funny to make a rape joke. Remember, you never deserved to be raped. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing or how drunk you were it’s still assault and it’s still a criminal violation.

Finally, if nothing else, for the women in the audience I urge you to value yourself, both body and mind. Young women in particular are encouraged to be so down on themselves that this cripples their ability to contribute everything they are capable of. Don’t diet, wear what you want to wear, get politically active, vote, call yourself a feminist and feel free to identify yourself as the strong, capable individual you are. The most feminist thing you can do is value your own voice and everything that you have to contribute to this country.

For the men in the audience, your role is equally as important in the feminist movement as women’s. As an individual you have the capacity to break down stereotypes of men in which they are painted as having little or no control over their faculties. Speak out against violence against women, allow women to speak when they have something to say, work to build women’s self esteem and don’t take pleasure in their insecurity. Your actions in the struggle for women’s equality will not only improve the lives of women around you but ultimately provide a society that works better for you in the long term as well.

This may all sound very motivational speakery and perhaps it is. But I suppose what Im trying to say is, be the change you want to see in the world. Individuals have the power to enact great change, you just have to be courageous enough to take the first step. To end, Ill quote something which was originally published by an unknown author in 1987 in which they said:

Because women’s work is never done and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or repetitious
and we’re the first to get fired
and what we look like is more important than what we do
and if we get raped it’s our fault
and if we get beaten we must have provoked it
and if we raise our voices we’re nagging bitches
and if we enjoy sex we’re nymphos
and if we don’t we’re frigid
and if we love women it’s because we can’t get a “real” man
and if we ask our doctor too many questions we’re neurotic and/or pushy
and if we expect childcare we’re selfish
and if we stand up for our rights we’re aggressive and “unfeminine”
and if we don’t we’re typical weak females
and if we want to get married we’re out to trap a man
and if we don’t we’re unnatural
and because we still can’t get an adequate safe contraceptive
but men can walk on the moon
and if we can’t cope or don’t want a pregnancy we’re made to feel guilty about abortion and…
for lots of other reasons
we are part of the women’s liberation movement.”


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