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6 November 2003 Edition

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Women in history- Engine of Change

BY ROISIN DE ROSA

Níl aon saoirse gan saoirse na mban

"Equality," said Bairbre de Brún, "is the most important word in the republican dictionary. "We've had many events of women 'coming together for rage': today, at this conference, we're going further — to see what is possible."

Sinn Féin's first woman Minister in this generation was addressing a path-breaking event last Saturday — Sinn Féin's National Conference, Engine for Change — Women and Equality, in the Law Society in Dublin's Blackhall Place. These were appropriate surroundings, because equality for women is about changing the law — changing the society in which we live to a new human rights based society where women are treated as equal.

The conference was the product of nine months hard work by Lucilita Bhreatnach of Sinn Féin's Equality Department. The conference was a statement, by the very wide representation of women who took part from many aspects of women's struggle for equality and from all regions of Ireland, of the need for and the actuality of that Engine for Change.

It was an inspiring event that reflected new forces at work in Ireland today, recognising women as individuals with human rights, and not derivative rights as the dependants of men. Equally, the conference embodied changes amongst women activists — a determination to engage broadly across the 32 Counties of Ireland, to build a human rights based society, where women are empowered and equally placed in decision making, in government, in representation, in institutions of power.

Lucilita led off the conference, setting Sinn Féin's commitment to equality for women in the historical context of people like Kathleen Clarke in 1916, of the women who campaigned for votes, of women around the world who had led liberation struggles.

Pointing around the walls to the excellent photographic exhibition of people in governance in Ireland today, the vast proportion of whom are men, she set this history of women who have been an engine of change into the context of today's Ireland. "Where is the National Strategic Plan for women? Where is the plan to achieve gender equality - to redress discrimination against women? "Is there a need for another Women's Workers' Union of Ireland now?" she asked.

Parallels economic and social

Mary Kelly, chairwoman of the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) spoke of the parallel struggles of gender equality and the struggle for a caring society that values social wealth as it does economic wealth. "As gender proportions change, so the social policy agenda changes, and this is everyone's dividend, not just women's," she said.

"Positive action is needed, in legislature, in the practice of appointments to state boards, a shift in the very culture of society, if we are to cast off male privilege.

"A social justice perspective sees rights as existing irrespective of a person's standing in the market. The NWCI does not consider inequalities resulting from exclusively market outcomes to be acceptable: rights are urgently needed to correct the unjust market outcomes in a collective way where everyone shares the costs."

'Articulate Provos'

Six-County Assembly ad EU election candidate Bairbre de Brún outlined the commitment of Sinn Féin to affirmative action, and a policy of 30% women in winnable seats in forthcoming elections. To some amusement, she quoted a reported conversation with a civil servant attached to negotiations: "He said 'we thought we knew all the articulate provos' — what was his surprise when more and more women started popping up, all very articulate?"

The morning session then cut to two remarkable women, both from the Donegal Gaelteacht, Eithne nic Lochlainn and Helena Mhic Laifeartaigh, who spoke of their work in empowering women through a training and rural development project to set up their own food business. Almost as if to illustrate Lucy and Mary Kelly's talks, they spoke of the project building confidence through addressing social economic disadvantage, enabling women to take control their own lives on a basis of equality, and ending dependence.

Women leading rural development

Ella O'Dwyer then gave a lecture on how history has humiliated Anne Devlin as Emmet's 'faithful servant girl' and 'housekeeper, when all evidence attests that she was neither, but a brave courageous rebel who took a leading role is Ireland's fight. Her paper ended a full morning, chaired by Jacqui Russell, a community activist working with refugees and a Sinn Féin equality officer. Maria Doherty, co-ordinator of the Gender Equality project in the National Youth Council of Ireland, had talked of the need for young women to be involved 50:50 in all decision making processes, and how young people need to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.

Challenges facing women today

The second part of the conference, chaired by Sorcha Nic Cormaic, a Dublin local election candidate, addressed the issues facing women in achieving gender equality in decision making and in society.

Marylou McDonald, Dublin's Sinn Féin candidate in next year's EU elections, introduced the session. She talked of the persistent and growing inequality in today's Ireland. On the EU, she asked: "Is a federal EU, a militarised EU, best for equality? The answer is clearly No. Such an EU cannot deliver equality, with its erosion of sovereignty, its mushrooming and ever more distant bureaucracy of centralised power. We need a new philosophy of equal states that empower citizens, communities and women to have a role in decision making if we are to deliver equality."

Backlash on gender equality

Mags O'Brien, who heads up the Gender and Pay Project of the ICTU, well known for her role in bringing in divorce legislation, quoted in disgust the 1937 Constitution, which says: "The state shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home." She explained how these attitudes to women are raising their heads once more with those who are saying equality has gone too far.

Mags pointed out that women bear the brunt in our society, where discrimination has meant they are in the lowest paid sectors of society, like the hotel and service industries.

Margaret Kelly, an assistant policy director in Barnado's, outlined an appalling catalogue of statistics concerning child poverty and neglect. "Children are most often seen as recipients of adult protection rather than as subjects of rights," she said. Kelly pointed out that one in six of those who had died in the conflict were aged 19 or under. She talked of the huge impact that a deeply divided sectarian society has on children, where the highest levels of deprivation coincided with the highest rates of conflict related deaths.

She talked of some positive developments in building an Ireland where children's rights are upheld, including a children's commissioner, the section 75 Equality duty, and other changes coming through the Good Friday Agreement. "These do not go far enough," she said. "We need greater North South Cooperation, a Bill of Rights, child-proofing policies, a Minister of Children and the participation of children and young people in the decision making processes that affect them. "Children are more affected than any other social group by the actions and inactions of government. Focusing on children's rights means rights for all."

Aengus Ó Snodaigh addressed the conference on the major work Sinn Féin TDs have done, calling for equality proofing of the budget and of legislation, rejected by the government. "The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell's attitude to a rights based society is simply that it shouldn't exist at all," said Aengus.

Martina Anderson, Sinn Féin co-ordinator of all-Ireland development, ended an outstanding conference with inspired enthusiasm for the realisable project of building a new Ireland that places human rights and equality centre stage.

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