Speech celebrating the National Women’s Council’s 50th Anniversary
Áras an Uachtaráin, 14th March 2023
A cháirde dhíl,
Is cúis mhór áthais dom agus do Shaibhdhín fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh, go hÁras an Uachtaráin don ócáid chailuírach seo agus muid ag comóradh 50 bliain ó bhunú Chomhairle Náisiúnta na mBan.
[It gives Sabina and myself great pleasure to welcome you all here to Áras an Uachtaráin today on this special occasion as we celebrate 50 years since the establishment of the National Women’s Council.]
Looking back to 1973, it is difficult to believe that accepting the fundamental rights of women came as late as it did.
The question of women’s rights is one that engages the fundamental structures and core values of our society. Failure to achieve gender equality – in terms of the fullest participation, in terms of equal access not only to resources and opportunities, but also of the self, regardless of gender, including economic participation and decision-making, as well as the ability to value different behaviours, aspirations and needs equally, regardless of gender – and failure to deliver a context that make this possible diminishes us all. This is an agenda with which you will be familiar and I congratulate you on all that you have done – traoslaím libh.
It is important that in policy responses we recognise that women’s experiences are heterogeneous, that their diverse expression is reflecting geography, culture, ethnicity, age and social class. While we must achieve a wider recognition of the values, experiences and cultures that women from diverse backgrounds bring to all levels of society, we must repeat again and again that no cultural barrier should stand in the way of the vindication of what are fundamental rights.
All of you here will be too well aware that the women’s movement does not represent, in the Irish case, any neat evolution, has been one of a progressive struggle, both in politics and practice. It has been one of conflict and hard-fought gains, incrementally achieved.
In order to build on what has been achieved in gender equality, we must recognise the fundamental truth that is manifested in the gendered nature of inequality and injustice.
As the National Women’s Council reaches the milestone anniversary of a half-century, I suggest that it serves better purpose to consider the nature and scale of the journey that is yet to be completed to achieve the full enjoyment of women’s rights, recognition of women’s experiences, and full gender equality, both in Ireland and globally.
As to 1973 and foundational moments – Hilda Tweedy of the Irish Housewives Association must be given credit for setting up the Council for the Status of Women, as it was then called in 1973, with the goal of gaining equality for women.
That was the year that Ireland entered the European Economic Community, the year the Irish government, in joining the EEC, was forced to abandon the disgraceful ‘marriage bar’ under which women had to leave their jobs when they married, my wife Sabina being amongst them.
Over the early years, the Council campaigned for the implementation of the findings of the Reports of the Commission on the Status of Women, in 1972 and again in 1993.
In 1995, following a strategic review, it changed its name to the National Women’s Council of Ireland. The organisation we celebrate today is one that has built its membership base to include 160 groups across the island of Ireland with a growing focus of activities on marginalised women, poverty, and violence against women.
From an international policy perspective, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action continues to be a pivotal point of reference on gender equality for governments, civil society and the public. Its twelve critical areas of concern have provided both a focus for concerted intervention as well as a structure to monitor progress and identify effective practices on gender equality.
For Ireland, the impact of the Beijing Declaration was notable in encouraging the development of gender equality legislation since the mid-1990s, profoundly influencing the successive frameworks of policies and actions under and related to the National Women’s Strategy, through which the efforts of government agencies, civil society, trade unions and businesses to promote equal treatment of men and women were co-ordinated.
At the most general level of society, while the scourge of violence against women is no longer a taboo subject, one to be kept hidden within the family or household, and is increasingly being viewed and discussed as a human-rights issue of urgent concern to both women and men on this island, yet the facts reveal that one of the darkest consequences of the recent Covid pandemic has been the serious escalation on levels of domestic violence during the period of Covid.
This ‘shadow epidemic’ of domestic abuse was perhaps accelerated by the pandemic emergency measures, necessary as they were, such as quarantines, restricted movement, separation from family and friends, and increased working from home. Shockingly, calls to Gardaí regarding domestic violence increased by as much as a quarter during lockdowns.
The channelling of resources towards emergency service provision, although critical to saving lives, put huge pressure on existing services. We do need a far more coordinated response to violence against women and girls. Such a response must place at its core the issues facing Traveller, Roma, migrant and disabled women, all of whom reported significant difficulties accessing domestic violence accommodation during the pandemic.
While we have been successful in breaking down traditional and stereotypical career expectations for girls and boys, politics and the higher reaches of business and academic life are examples of sectors in which the predominance of men and the struggle to transform the working environment to one more inclusive of women needs to continue getting further scrutiny.
An “unexplained” gender pay gap remains, despite progress. In Ireland this gap stands at 11.3 percent, just behind the EU average, which as of 2020 is 13 percent, according to Eurostat.
While unequal pay has been illegal in the State since 1975, greater pay transparency is needed to tackle this ongoing form of discrimination, and may I suggest that current efforts to improve the unionisation of under-represented sectors, such as carers, most of whom are female, will surely yield good results.
The United Nations 2030 Agenda and related Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal Number 5 – to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – remains our globally accepted blueprint for an inclusive, more equal future.
The Goal recognises importantly that gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world, in harmony with Mother Nature. Yes, there has been progress over the last decades, but the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030.
I have recently spoken in Senegal at the second Dakar Food Summit which focused on food sovereignty in Africa. In my addresses, I emphasised the issue of gender as it pertains to food security in Africa.
Right across the African Continent the achieving of zero hunger requires gender-inclusive land and labour policies. While globally meaningful policies must prioritise the inclusion of women and girls who are more food insecure than men in every region of the world. This gender gap in food security has grown exponentially in recent years, and will only deteriorate further in the absence of targeted intervention.
While forming more than 40 percent of the agricultural labour force in Sub-Saharan Africa, women are not only the victims of the food crisis, they, in the most demanding circumstances, produce up to 80 percent of foodstuffs. Empowering women farmers can serve as a transformative tool for food security, but it is vital that female farmers’ limited access to physical inputs, such as seeds and fertiliser, to markets, to storage facilities, to land itself, be addressed.
The strong connection between gender and food security highlights the importance of recognising the necessity of women’s participation in policy design and responses. Women’s rights are spreading and strengthening across Africa. There has been a gradual increase in women involved in decision-making processes. Continued efforts at engaging women—as leaders and agents of change—in decision-making must be central to our policy response to food security in Africa. This requires a much-needed paradigm shift in the discourse on food security.
While some achievements have also been made in the elimination of violence against women and girls, at the global level violence and coercion are increasing, in particular in zones of conflict.
Gender inequality exacerbates the impact of disasters, whose consequences compound it. With the world already facing a growing number of climate-related tragedies, we must continue to draw attention to the need for investment in those services and infrastructure that will deliver gender equality: universal healthcare, water and sanitation, education, social protection.
As to responding to the interacting crises of our time, including responding to the consequences of climate change, and women’s role in decision-making, how depressing it is that, out of 110 leaders present at last year’s United Nations COP27 climate change summit, only seven were women.
This disproportionality is largely sourced in the composition of the delegation teams taking part in negotiations, with only on average one-third of COP delegation members being female – up to 90 percent male in certain cases.
This is problematic, not just on general equality grounds, but also because climate change disproportionately impacts girls and women.
The UN has estimated that approximately 80 percent of climate refugees are female. In the face of climate-induced instability, girls drop out of school and marry earlier, instances of gender-based violence increase, and women must take greater risks to secure fuel, food, and water for their families.
As to participation – we still see a gender bias in education globally. What an appalling statistic it is that globally an estimated 130 million girls will never set foot inside a classroom, losing out on opportunities for better or sustainable futures, and thus reinforcing established intergenerational dynamics of poverty and inequality.
Unfortunately, too, in terms of access to healthcare, gender inequality continues to contribute to high levels of female mortality. Each day, almost 1,000 women die from preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth in countries where there is poor or unequal access to quality healthcare.
Accessing water for their families in the poorest regions of the world remains a task that women frequently are forced to undertake. More than 2 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water at home. According to UNICEF, women and girls spend a collective 200 million hours sourcing water every day, time that they could spend studying in school or in employment.
This high price of collecting water will only be tackled through comprehensive investment and provision of essential water infrastructure and universal basic services.
As to some of the other challenges we face, child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence remain as among the greatest scourges that we must tackle, and with increased energy. According to UNICEF, today more than 700 million women were married before they turned 18. More than a third of that number were married before the age of 15.
Child marriage affects girls disproportionately and is deeply linked to poverty. Girls who marry young are less likely to complete their education, and child brides often suffer from higher discrimination, violence, and increased maternal mortality rates.
Forced and early marriage is but one of many forms of violence against women and girls which includes sexual violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking, and so-called ‘honour killings’. All forms of gender-based violence contribute to the belief that men and women can be treated differently, based on gender stereotypes that vary in intensity, ignorance and bogus rationalisations, from culture to culture.
Cultural rationalisations of gender violence, I repeat, must never be tolerated. Such violence is now correctly considered, in ever more legislatures, as a form of hate crime, needing to be called out for what it is: an abuse of rights usually sourced in a false and dangerous sense of entitlement, superiority, misogyny or similar attitudes in the perpetrator’s dominant position.
While such abuse remains in place, is not confronted, the rights of women will continue to be hampered by the false belief that these forms of violence are part of the norm and acceptable. This is an area of policy which must be returned to at the United Nations at every level. There should be no boundaries to access to universal rights.
Women’s rights, for all of us – women, men and children – remain one of the great ethical challenges of our time. When the international community fails women, it fails humanity.
As to the future, we must recognise how inspirational working for the fullest recognition of the woman’s experience can be, how we, all women and men, too, can draw inspiration from feminism from those great feminists who have written and offered their lives with a philosophical and intellectual authority, such as Simone de Beauvoir, to help us address our contemporary challenges.
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my wife Sabina’s lifelong work as an activist for women’s rights and, in particular, for example, her advocacy on the topic of breastfeeding which I know has been appreciated by so many mothers over the years and by women who have become mothers recently and are so welcome here at the Áras.
Women’s rights did not fall from the sky. They were achieved incrementally by activists like yourselves in the room. I take the opportunity again to thank the many feminists who worked tirelessly, playing important roles in the National Women’s Council over the decades and at various levels.
Yes, many institutional gains have been achieved, but there remains much to be done to achieve a Republic of true equality, and there remain so many areas where respect for the rights of women remains at best an aspiration rather than real lived experience, but the past 50 years tells us that change is possible and can be made happen.
The realisation of women’s rights, appropriate recognition of the woman’s experience in its fullest sense, remain one of the great ethical challenges of our age for women, and for men, for all who share an ethical commitment to equality, social justice and universal respect for rights.
Solidarity among women, and between women and men, has never been more important. Let us all cooperate together to continue to create a future of respect and freedom across the sexes, a more equal, inclusive, peaceful and harmonious society, one that supports a flourishing human diversity on this vulnerable planet, a peaceful world beyond violence, conflict and ever threatening war and its machinery of death that offers destruction to all and generates profit for the insatiable few.
May I wish you every success for the future.
Go n-eirí libh in bhúr n-iarrachtaí do’n todchaí.