Speech by Sabina Higgins at the Family Resource Centre marking International Women’s Day
Wednesday, 10th March, 2021
I am delighted to have this opportunity to join you all on this very important occasion on the international calendar – International Women’s Day.
Although in the special circumstances of this year, responding to Covid-19 demands – we are unable to be physically together, yet we gather all the more in a spirit of solidarity and sisterhood as we acknowledge and celebrate the remarkable and essential work undertaken day in, day out, by so many women within our society.
This past year has brought into such sharp focus the vital contribution of women as we struggled with Covid-19 particularly the contribution made by so many low paid workers in our society.
As a nation facing, together, the challenge of the Coronavirus pandemic we are indebted to the remarkable courage and generosity of those who provide essential services in our hospitals, in our shops, and out in our wider communities.
So many of those workers are women and, as we sadly know, so much of that work has traditionally been under appreciated, under rated and under paid by a society that continues to define valuable work in ways that fail to encompass many of the vital services on which citizens depend. May it all be different when Covid-19 is over.
The ‘Front line’ is a wide ‘front’. Those who care for the elderly, work in hospitals, who look after children and who respond in so many selfless ways to the needs of their fellow citizens have undeniably kept our society going throughout this most demanding and difficult time. They have worked, and continue to work, with tireless generosity putting their own health, and indeed their own lives, at risk as they do so.
To all those women in whatever ways, and in whatever circumstances, who have responded to the Coronavirus crisis with such a selfless spirit of solidarity, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. Let us not forget, however, that this leaves us with a responsibility - gratitude can never be a substitute for adequate pay, security of employment, trade union representation and fair working conditions and the dignity that is the right of all workers in any fair and inclusive society.
Throughout this past year we have rediscovered the importance of care and solidarity. It is my great hope that, as we emerge from the Coronavirus Pandemic, it is care and solidarity that will guide and shape the new society that we craft together in a post pandemic world.
Congratulations to all – particularly women for how they rose to the challenge of the changed world the Covid-19 virus brought into being. Most of us had never even heard the word pandemic, and we were shocked and frightened to our core as we gradually began to realise what a dreadful disease it is, and how it changed fundamentally our day-to-day living. We are still feeling the stress and anxiety and will for some time to come.
Of course, for some sadly, the suffering they endured through contracting the virus will continue. For others, the loss of their loved ones without the consolation of being able to be with them will have a lasting sad effect. Other casualties were those who from the stress suffered depression and mental health problems.
Through all of that, the wonderful thing was how heroically and gloriously people rose to the challenge, and with what courage. What a change of consciousness it brought about as people came to a new realisation of how vulnerable and fragile our very existence as individuals and humanity.
We are so lucky to live in a democracy where we could turn to the State, the Government, for a plan where the organs of the State, and over 50,000 health and public services workers took over and stood in the front line of action and danger.
Then we had the 2nd line of volunteers, like so many of yourselves.
We were forced to face some fundamental questions about how we look at society and what we value, what are essential structures, what are the basic essential tasks, what is essential work and who are the essential workers.
It is clear how unprepared many of the structures of society are, and that a whole new lot of changes must take place and that we create a society that has as its foundation the “health and well-being” of all – as it states in the United Nations’ 3rd Sustainable Development Goal. A society where basic public services and the Caring Institutions must be given priority.
Universal Basic Services must be provided in the structures of health, housing, education, infrastructure, transport and communication. There must be Guarantees that work is decent, fulfilling, secure and that it has adequate trade union representation, and basic protection, and where human rights for women and men and all gender rights are legally respected and where culture is promoted and valued, and especially a culture of non-violence, where gender or domestic violence are never tolerated.
Today, for International Women’s Day, we acknowledge that as women are the majority in the caring institutions and carry a disproportionate responsibility for care in the family situation, they bear the brunt of the suffering of this pandemic and will have the most lasting effects.
When this pandemic is over what will the world be like? What will the world of work be like? What changes that took place will be kept and who will gain and who will lose? How much of a backlog of problems not dealt with and how much suffering that has happened will come to light and how much recovery will be needed?
It is clear that we were not prepared for the eventuality of a crisis like the pandemic, but it is also clear that we can learn from it. How we were not prepared, and what changes we need to put in place to have a well-functioning infrastructure that can deal in the best possible way with any eventuality.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we know things must change and it is acknowledged that austerity has not worked. If a country and society is to flourish it needs to be happy.
People need to have a basic good standard of living. That means they have to have their basic universal needs met in order that they can survive and thrive, think for themselves, and participate in society.
But to conclude, during the lockdown we saw how people can adapt to change and we also saw how its effect on different people could be very different depending on their circumstances.
People with good size housing, with space for privacy and social distancing and adequate green spaces could fare so much better than those in cramped overcrowded housing. Because of the disastrous state of our housing situation they were made very vulnerable. The effect of all that on people’s mental health and on the incidence of domestic violence, which sadly increased by 25% over the period means there are many many problems needing remedy.
As I said at the outset, the quality of the community we create and live in is what helps make the quality of our life enjoyable and secure. Madge, Rita’s mother said “the real work always takes place in the community”. But the environment for that community must be supported by properly resourced facilities. It needs a well-funded Resource Centre that can cater for the needs and development of all ages, and all generations. It needs not just a well-resourced library and librarian, but meeting rooms for classes, for discussions, for pass-times. It needs a sports hall for indoor games and martial arts etc.. It needs to be empowered to take part in the decisions that affect its environment – like the City Development Plan and the Public Participation Network.
I have always been in such admiration of St. Michael’s Resource Centre and would wish that we could have Rita Fagans as inspiration and a driving force in all communities.
I also wish the Government would listen to St. Michael’s (Resource Center’s) insistence that public land be used for public amenity and for public housing.
Today, as we gather to mark and honour the work of women around the globe, we do so with a renewed commitment to challenging the societal norms and values that have led to the economic marginalisation of so many women, and the devaluing of the vital and indispensable work they offer to our societies and to our world.
Let us also resolve, on this International Women’s Day 2021, to stand in solidarity with those women across the globe whose economic security will be disproportionately affected by the consequences of Covid-19. It is greatly worrying, and it must concern us all, to know that not only will an estimated 96 million people be driven into poverty as a result of the pandemic, but that almost half of those will be women and girls.
I thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. It has been an honour and a pleasure.
Happy International Women’s Day.
Ar agaidh linn le chéile.