13 November 2008 Edition

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Belfast conference on advancing women's rights

WOMEN OF THE WORLD: Conference delegates stand behind a banner honouring Sinn Féin Vice-President Máire Drumm, assassinated by a unionist death squad in her Mater Hospital bed in 1976

WOMEN OF THE WORLD: Conference delegates stand behind a banner honouring Sinn Féin Vice-President Máire Drumm, assassinated by a unionist death squad in her Mater Hospital bed in 1976


BY EMMA CLANCY

SINN FÉIN activists held a successful conference on the theme ‘What Women Want’ on Saturday, 8 November, at St Mary’s University College in west Belfast.
MEP Bairbre de Brún and Jennifer McCann MLA were key speakers at the event, which discussed the role of women in the Republican Movement and the challenges facing women today in the ongoing fight for equality.
Bobby Storey, chairperson of Belfast Sinn Féin, welcomed the conference participants, saying:
“Women have rightly identified republicanism as a path towards winning rights and equality. But it’s not enough for us to just imagine a future society where women have achieved full equality. We need to address inequality now in our society and to lead by example in our own party.”

POLITICAL REPRESENTATION
West Belfast MLA Jennifer McCann spoke on the huge disparity between men and women in terms of political representation in the North and South of Ireland.
“At the moment, only 16.7 per cent of the North’s MLAs and 21.3 per cent of councillors are women,” she said. Eighteen Assembly members out of 108 are women and, in the 26 Counties, only 22 of the 166 TDs in Leinster House are women.”
She outlined Sinn Féin’s commitment to increasing its percentage of women candidates in elections and said that the key objective barriers to women participating in political life and decision-making must be tackled.
“Poverty is one of the main barriers to women developing their full potential,” she said. “The fact that the work women do in the home is not valued, the high cost of childcare and the concentration of women in minimum-wage, insecure employment are key factors keeping women out of public life.”
Jennifer McCann said:
“The legal rights women have won - the equal right to work, to access to education, and to equal pay - all remain theoretical unless they are underpinned by a right to childcare.
“Any strategy aimed at increasing the participation of women in politics must address these broader barriers at the same time.”

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Widespread domestic and sexual violence against women, Jennifer McCann said, is “the most horrific way we can see the expression of negative attitudes towards women”.
“Violence against women, whether it’s on the streets or in the home, is a human rights abuse.”
Statistics from the North’s Health Department show that each year more than 6,000 domestic violence-related crimes occur; on average, five women are killed by their partners; and more than 700 families have to be rehoused.
“Sinn Féin supports a safety and sanctions approach and we believe ending violence against women must become a much higher priority on the policing and justice agenda,” McCann said.
Negative ‘blame the victim’ attitudes towards women can be seen starkly in the results of a September survey by Amnesty International of students in the North, which showed almost half believed that rape victims who had flirted with their attacker are partially or fully responsible for the attack.
McCann outlined the challenge to change negative attitudes towards women, which should start with human rights education in the classroom as well as public education campaigns. She said the underlying cause of these poor attitudes is the economic and political inequality of women.
The provision of women’s health services was also raised in discussion, with west Belfast MLA Sue Ramsey, an organiser of the conference, highlighting the urgent need for the North’s Department of Health to build the new regional women and children’s hospital at the Royal Hospital, which was first announced six years ago by then Health Minister Bairbre de Brún.

ACTION
The conference broke into workshops to discuss the way forward for advancing women’s rights, particularly focusing on the needs of women in local communities.
Bairbre de Brún summed up the workshop discussions, saying she was inspired by the level of enthusiasm of the participants.
“The key issue that was raised by the speakers and in all the workshops was the fact that women today are being hit hard by the deepening economic downturn and by rising fuel and food costs.”
Electricity prices rose by 33 per cent in October, following a rise of 20 per cent in the price of gas, and half the population in the North is estimated to be experiencing fuel poverty.
 “Sinn Féin is working at the European level, in government in the North and in the Dáil to stand up and ensure the most vulnerable people in society are not made to bear the brunt of the developing recession. The need for community-led anti-poverty initiatives in conjunction with this work is stark and women can play the leading role in developing these.”
Ambitious plans were mapped out in the conference workshops to bring together women involved in various community organisations, residents’ associations and women’s groups throughout west Belfast to discuss the pressing needs of women in the community.
Conference organiser and chair Jacqui McGeough thanked the committee that had organised the productive conference, which included Sue Ramsey, Jennifer McCann, Bairbre de Brún, Teresa Clarke and Rosena Brown, and thanked St Mary’s University College for providing the venue.

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