Ireland: Big steps forward in women’s rights and equality but struggle continues

'Mother and Baby homes' scandal

In the last years, we have made a number of steps forward in relation to women’s rights and equality in Ireland, North and South. The referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and remove the constitutional ban on abortion in the South was won by 66% in 2018, and the referendum on marriage equality was victorious in 2015. In the North, abortion and marriage equality was won in 2019.

These victories were only gained through decades of campaigning, as well as the crucial role of a new generation no longer willing to put up with backward views and oppressive laws that police their lives and their bodies.

Real abortion access now!

However, despite these advances, we still have a long way to go to combat women’s oppression. In the South, abortion is legal on request up until twelve weeks, and later if there is a risk to the pregnant woman’s life or health, or in the case of fatal foetal abnormality. There is a mandatory three day waiting period following a request for an abortion, which we demand must be removed.

Women are capable of making the decision that is best for them and their bodies, without being forced to wait for three days in case they change their minds. This three day waiting period exists regardless of how close to the twelve-week mark the pregnancy is, meaning that if it goes beyond twelve weeks the abortion can be denied and the woman would still be forced to travel abroad.

In the North, women are facing a deep crisis of underfunding in abortion services. Services have been cut in one-third of local areas because of a lack of resources. This means that women living in 10 out of 26 local areas have to travel to access abortion. Abortion is legal up until 12 weeks, up until 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health, and in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. Reactionary forces have been attempting to limit this.

We have seen the damage, and indeed ineffectiveness of abortion bans and restrictions. In the South before the legalisation of abortion an estimated twelve women every single day travelled to England to access abortion services, and many more took illegal but safe pills online. These restrictions had a much more severe impact on working-class women, migrants and refugees who would have found it more difficult to afford to travel, find childcare for other children, get time off work, or to leave the country at all.

Gender-Based violence

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it an increase in domestic violence. Women’s Aid reported that calls increased by 43% between March and June of 2020, which is an estimated increase of 1,000 calls per month. This has been exacerbated by decades of underfunding and cuts to refuges and supports, many of whom rely on charity.

In the South, research shows that 1 in 7 women have experienced domestic violence. In the North, there has been an increase in reported sexual violence and rape.

Last year, we also saw a huge case of Image-Based Sexual Abuse (IBSA), where thousands of intimate pictures of mostly women were leaked online.  Sexual violence and assault are developing and adapting along with online developments.

Many victims of violence still do not report their abuse to the police. Ultimately, the police and the courts are tools of the establishment and cannot be trusted to give victims the support they need. Recent high profile cases have clearly illustrated the unprofessional conduct of lawyers, and the continued use of “victim-blaming” in court. The Belfast Rape trial in 2018, where the accused were high profile Ulster rugby club players, highlighted their misogynistic attitudes toward women, the viciousness of the media against the accuser and the media’s continued reference to the future careers of the men involved. In 2018, we saw a Cork rape trial, where the lawyer for the defence said of the teenaged accuser, “You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

‘Mother and Baby Homes’

In recent months in the South, we saw the release of the Mother and Baby Homes Report, a stark reminder of the lasting effect of Catholic Church domination over Irish society. Young, unmarried women, facing crisis pregnancies, were sent to these homes, where they and their children experienced systematic abuse. It is estimated that 35,000 women passed through the doors of these Mother and Baby homes in Ireland. The last home only shut its doors in 1998.

In Tuam, County Galway, the remains of 796 children were found in a septic tank from a Mother and Baby Home run by the Bon Secours order of Nuns.

The report was regarded as an insult and a white-wash by survivors. The Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) gave a state apology in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) which shamefully tried to place the responsibility on the entire society at the time. The blame lies with the Catholic Church and the Irish state who worked in tandem to allow the crimes of the Mother and Baby homes to take place.

Even now in the South of Ireland, the Catholic Church maintains much control over society. The majority of schools and hospitals are still run by the Catholic Church. Around 90% of primary schools are run by the Church, with the Bishop as the school patron, and with an explicitly Catholic ethos. Socialists call for a full separation of Church and State.

Trans rights 

In the fight against oppression, it is essential to include the fight for LGBTQ equality. While marriage equality was a victory and validation of same-sex couples there is still a long way to go to combat homophobia and transphobia. LGBTQ+ people are at a much higher risk of violence, discrimination and have higher rates of mental health struggles. Transgender healthcare is still practically non-existent and cannot provide for the numbers wishing to access it.

Trans and non-binary people should be able to access the physical and mental healthcare they need. It should not be private-run services for profit, but accessible to the whole working class. Linked to this must be investing in the health service, which has been underfunded and at breaking point for a number of years, accelerated further by the Covid pandemic.

Tackling homophobia and transphobia is essential. Trade unions should organise campaigns to tackle discrimination in workplaces. Sex education in schools should be factual, consent-based and LGBTQ inclusive.

Women workers

Working-class women continue to face discrimination and inequality in the workforce. Women are far more likely to work part-time or in precarious jobs. On average, women are still paid less than men. They are also the primary caregivers at home and to older relatives, as well as performing the majority of household tasks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly illustrated that it is workers that run the country, and who we rely on. Many essential jobs including healthcare, retail and education are a majority female workforce. While precarious or unsafe conditions, low pay and inequality existed before the pandemic, it has been accelerated and exposed as Covid-19 continues.

We have seen the example of the predominantly female ex Debenhams shop workers, who received notice via email at the beginning of the pandemic, last April, that the store was closing permanently. Since then they have been on pickets across the country fighting for their fair redundancy that the company have refused to pay. They have said repeatedly that they aren’t just fighting for themselves, but for all workers, particularly in retail that will be expected to pay the price of this pandemic.

We have seen significant industrial action in the healthcare sector, including the 2019 nurses’ strike in the South, and the healthcare strike in the North in 2020. Student nurses who have been working on the frontline in hospitals for free have been campaigning for fair pay.

We can see the power of the members of trade unions, and their ability to transform them into fighting trade unions capable of defending workers against the inevitable post-Covid attacks on jobs and conditions that are to come. The trade unions should also launch a serious campaign to fight against all oppression, for genuine equal pay and an end to sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

A Marxist approach

As Marxists, we know that the oppression of women is rooted in the capitalist system we live in. It is necessary to fight against all forms of oppression, which must be linked to the need to build a mass party of the working class to transform society into a socialist one that rejects all forms of oppression. We need a united working-class movement of all genders, races and sexualities to fight for a socialist society as the only possible way to fully reject capitalist oppression and create a better world for all.


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