Republican News · Thursday 18 November1999

[An Phoblacht]

Irish women still waging equality battle

Sinn Féin is continuing to pursue initiatives so that we can achieve full gender equality in the party. The struggle for national and gender equality must go together

Gerry Adams

Childcare, quality of training, equal opportunities, full representation in politics, confronting injustice and the feminisation of poverty were the top priorities on the agenda for the 150 participants at last Saturday's Sinn Féin National Women's Conference in the Regency Hotel, Dublin. It was then a fitting theme chosen - Women's Priorities in the New Millennium.

The opening address, given by Belfast Deputy Mayor Marie Moore, marked a significant milestone not just for women but for Sinn Féin as well. It was the first time a Sinn Féin representative from the Six Counties paid a visit to Dublin wearing the gold chain of Belfast City Council.

The morning panels kicked off on the very emotive issue of the Hepatitis C scandal and the state's reaction to the destruction of so many women's lives. Detta Warnock from Positive Action gave a moving insight into the extent of the state's neglect. Positive Action is made up of over 1,000 women who were infected with Hepatitis C via transfusions of the contaminated blood product Anti-D, which was produced by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service Board.

Colin Reid of the NSPCC in Belfast then discussed Children's Rights and Needs. He highlighted the need to promote the rights of children throughout Ireland in the context of human rights.

Catherine Forde of the Irish Family Planning Association said that while the abortion debate rages across the country, reproductive rights include far more than just access to safe and legal abortions. She called for legislation to protect women's reproductive rights, unlimited access to adequate gynaecological care, family planning counselling and contraceptives.

Cavan County Councillor Pauline Tully then gave a presentation in which she discussed strategies and tactics for using political and grassroots action to influence and change social policy.

The afternoon workshops gave participants the opportunity to more fully debate issues and share experiences and information.

The ``Increasing Women's Participation and Leadership'' workshop, facilitated by Philomena Coyle and Geraldine Cusack, found that for too long politics has been a strictly male domain. Participants stressed the importance of examining the barriers erected in front of women seeking to enter full-time politics and how they might be dismantled. On a broader scale, it was felt, societal attitudes towards women need to change and the provision of child-care must be looked at in a meaningful way if politics in Ireland are to be truly reflective of the population. The issue now facing Sinn Féin is how, as a party it can bring more women to the fore of politics. Recommendations from the workshops were many and varied, ranging from the scheduling of meetings, provision of childcare for women to attend meetings and identifying supporters from the electoral register and approaching them with a view to encouraging these women becoming involved. For those women already involved, it was felt that training to build confidence, assertiveness and in public speaking should be arranged.

The point was made that Sinn Féin should identify and select more women as spokespersons for the party.

Chris Huddleson of the Victims and Survivors of State Violence Group facilitated the ``Confronting Injustice'' workshop. Central to the conclusion reached in this workshop was the need to create greater awareness of the level of injustice faced by people in the Six Counties; including collusion, intimidation and the lack of acceptable policing. A call was made for an all-Ireland seminar to be held addressing the issues of Community Restorative Justice and the escalating drugs problem.

Sinn Féin Assembly member Mary Nellis and Liz Sullivan of the Combat Poverty Agency facilitated the ``Feminisation of Poverty'' workshop. This was a particularly relevant topic to address in today's so-called Celtic Tiger economy, as it was remarked that 54% of women are earning less than the average hourly rate.

For women, the problems are all too many, as they are almost always are the ones on the front-line. Additional issues raised include poor wages, lack of childcare, training and education and institutional disincentives for moving into the labour force.

A significant factor for women living in poverty is the state's treatment of women on the basis of the status of their relationship with a man and its failure to recognise a woman as a distinct individual. The workshop concluded that the policy needs to be changed so that payments will be made to women as individuals.

The sentiments raised in the workshops were echoed by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams in his keynote address. He spoke of how important it is that ``republican women have, as of right, a place in building a party which reflects their needs and in which they have full representation at all levels.

``We all know that an inclusive political struggle will lay the foundations for a more equal society,'' he continued. ``Sinn Féin is once again leading the way in producing a comprehensive analysis of gender inequality and detailed policy proposals for achieving equality for women in Irish society. Parallel with this is a commitment to keeping our own house in order. Sinn Féin is continuing to pursue initiatives so that we can achieve full gender equality in the party. Women have always been active in the struggle for Irish freedom and a new Ireland.''

Adams also pointed out, however, that ``in 1999, women in Ireland have still not achieved equality. Much of women's work is undervalued and underpaid. Equal opportunity laws and sex discrimination legislation have not achieved their goals.''

Speaking on the low numbers of women entering politics, he said: ``With the lack of adequate, affordable childcare, violence against women and other barriers, perhaps it's unsurprising that the majority of women - and women are the majority in Ireland - are not exactly clamouring to enter politics and public life. Yet responsibility nonetheless lies with political parties to change their internal structures to maximise both women's participation and influence in decision making.

``The struggle for national and gender equality must go together.''

The conference continued with panel presentations addressing the issue of Orangeism and the Culture of Domination in the context of the marching season. Belfast City Councillor Chrissie McAuley moderated the panel which included Patricia Breen of the Ormeau Road Residents' Coalition and Orla Maloney of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition, who gave a disturbing account of how her community has been boxed in and ghettoised for the 500th day running with little sign of letting up.

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