TCD International Women’s Week: Women Around the World
Time for Haste. Time to Increas the Pace of Change.
Senator Katherine Zappone
Women around the world – let us listen to each other today and throughout this significant week. Women in Ireland – let us listen to each other today and let us re-commit ourselves to the task of change at hand. While change for women is happening – let us today promise to each other that it is TIME FOR HASTE – it is TIME TO INCREASE THE PACE OF CHANGE. Let us ask ourselves the question – what do we need to do in Ireland – and throughout the world to INCREASE THE PACE OF CHANGE so that all women are free to be who they wish to be, so that all women are free to determine their own identity, to create family in the way best for them, to find work at the highest level they desire, to make meaning, to create alternative cultures, to become front-line human rights defenders, to ensure that the values of LOVE and CARE are at the centre of our global cultural reality. What do we need to do in Ireland to bring these things about? How can we reach across our borders, jurisdictions, waters, continents to support other women, and men, who are passionately committed to these same sorts of ideals? When Hillary Clinton was in Ireland last, just before she retired as the most powerful political woman in the world – as Secretary of State of the United States of America – she suggested that if we really want to ensure change for those whose human rights are violated, those who are not free to be themselves, those who have little access to political and financial power, we should ensure that our governments initiate strategic dialogues with civil society actors within developing (and developed!) contexts – talk to them, learn from them, provide financial support to them so that they may be empowered to do the work THEY know best within their own cultural contexts and jurisdictions. And Secretary Clinton also was the first Secretary of State to create the position of ‘Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues’ – and Ambassador Melanne Verveer did tremendous work on behalf of women throughout the globe and it is critical that President Obama chooses the right woman to succeed her. Of course there exist a myriad of other ways to reach across the divides – particularly through social media – and find ways to dialogue with, strategise with, plot and plan with – women throughout the globe. There is an urgency to this work – the pace of global inequalites and global poverty has not been reversed yet – this is the work before us – this is especially the work of the generation of women, and men, who pursue degrees within the walls of these ancient buildings. It’s up to you – and it is also up to my geneneration – its up to us to work together - but you must take a big chunk of the baton in this relay race.
So, as I have already indicated, change for women is happening. Change in the situations of women, change in the range of opportunities for women in Ireland and around the world is happening and yet the pace of this change is agonisingly slow. Woman and girls make up 70% of the number of people who are living in poverty worldwide. Women own less than 2% of the world’s property. These are staggering statistics, and yet in celebrating International Women’s Week we must also acknowledge the progress we have made in addressing the needs of woman. We must acknowledge our success in tandem with identifying what is lacking in our realities. In the words of Michelle Bachelet, the head of UN Women, ‘Gender Equality must become a lived reality’.
In order to achieve this ‘lived reality’ women must be an integral part of our decision making structures. Women must be represented but crucially women must also be present in our political structures for change to occur. Here in Ireland 85% of TDs in Dail Eireann are male deputies. Since the foundation of the State just 6% of all seats, in both the Dail and the Seanad, have been filled by women. The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act was passed last year. This act may be better known for its introduction of gender quotas into the Irish political system. The Act provides that political parties which do not select at least 30% women candidates at the next general election will lose half of their State funding. During the Oireachtas debates on this legislation I heard some members say that they disliked quotes but emphasised that they liked what quotas achieved. I was arguing for a quota of at least 40% - why should we start at 30%? You might say why should we not argue for a quota of 50%? Indeed, I think that is what we should aim for – and it could have been built into the bill – but the ambition of this government is not that high. It should be higher! Today the Irish Times Editorial says that ‘the tide is turning’ and of course they are referring to our economic situation. Now, however we may want to debate the issue of ‘the tide is turning economically’ and I do not think we can really say that until we dismantle the unsustainable growth political economic model that we still have, we cannot yet say that ‘the tide is turning’ for Irish women. We must be more ambitious. Over 100 countries worldwide use some form of quota in their electoral systems. If these measures were not taken we would not achieve equal representation in the Oireachtas for another 360 years.
Women’s Poverty, Income Inequality
Gender quotas alone will not bring us equal representation. There are a range of other barriers to women’s participation in politics and society, chief amongst these are income inequality and a lack of quality, affordable child care. Let’s take a look at Ireland. I welcome Minister Burton’s commitment to reform of child and family income supports. The Family Income Support payment must be reformed to take account of the needs of smaller families and disincentives to work must be addressed so that working is a real option for people on low incomes. The retention of the free pre-school year must also be welcomed. I note however that €210 million has been saved from the child benefit budget as a result of a reduction in the rates over the past two budgets, these savings must be reinvested in early childhood education and quality childcare services. Have they been? Only a miniscule portion. Reform of the Social Welfare system as well as equality proofing our budgets would be an effective method of ensuring that budget reductions do not disproportionately affect women. Equality proofing of budgets is a key initiative associated with the Irish feminist network - this has been an effective means of reducing women’s poverty within other countries. Irish politicians need to seriously engage with this as a possibility here.
Every 90 seconds somewhere in the world a woman dies in pregnancy or because of childbirth-related complications despite us having the knowledge and resources to make birth safe. 200 million women around the world have an unmet need for family planning services. Here in Ireland we have a great standard of care for woman in pregnancy but we urgently need clarity in our laws. Women and medical personnel deserve this clarity and this is why I support the Campaign for Action on X. A Rally starts at 6pm at the Central Bank today – to call for assurance that Ireland legislates soon. I hope that this most basic level of protection –protection of the life of women who are pregnant- will become a legal reality very soon.
Violence and Patriarchy
Despite this being the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day our society remains marred by various forms of discrimination and violence against women. Across a range of areas we witness the traits of a patriarchal culture, from reduced prison sentences for sexual assault to over a 40% increase in the numbers of women seeking support from domestic violence services. Many of these support services are severely underfunded. The number of places in domestic violence refuges are 10-20% of the numbers needed to meet current demand. I have highlighted many of these issues and others in my own work in the Seanad.
Trafficking and Prostitution
Around the world an estimated 2.5 million people are involved in forced labour at any given time as a result of trafficking. 43% of these are used for sexual exploitation. I made the initial call for the Department of Justice to review our laws related to prostitution and to examine the potential link between prostitution and human trafficking. Other countries, Sweden, for example, have established this link and have introduced a range of measures to combat the problem. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, of which I am a member, is coming to an end of its consultation process on the issue and will publish a report before the summer recession.
One of the key ways in which we will move towards mutuality and equality between men and women is through our membership of the United Nations. Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1985 and more recently supported the establishment of UN Women in 2010. On election to the Human Rights Council last year Ireland pledged to play a full role in efforts to combat all forms of discrimination and to promote gender equality. We must honour this commitment at home and abroad. Women’s rights are often strongly endorsed at an international human rights level but rarely are they given this emphasis at the national level in terms of prioritisation or resourcing. Our national human rights institutions are crucial in addressing domestic issues around gender equality. The Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission had their budgets reduced by over 30% in 2009. These two bodies will now be merged to form a new Equality and Human Rights Commission. The independence of this new body must be in-line with international stands. Its effectiveness and credibility must not be undermined by a lack of resourcing. I will fight hard for this in my Seanad work in the coming months.
In conclusion, as you release your balloons today – make a promise to reach out – make a promise to do many, many things throughout the coming year to work in dialogue and solidarity with other women in Ireland but especially with other women beyond our shores. We must do this – with haste. We must do this – it is a prime ingredient to increase the pace for change for women’s freedom. And when all women are free, the global well-being that flows forth from this will be the waterfall that enables men’s freedom and the freedom of our children too.