Monday, 8 March 2021
International Women's Day: Statements
Guím Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan sona do gach éinne sa Teach. I used to love International Women's Day. It was a day to celebrate one's feminist heroes such as Kathleen Lynn - I am wearing a brooch commemorating her. She was a proud republican woman who fought for the freedom of her State, but she also played a significant role in addressing inequalities in mothers' and children's health and in the roll-out of the vaccination for tuberculosis. I hope the Government will review its decision not to name the national children's hospital after Dr Kathleen Lynn.
International Women's Day was also a day on which we had an opportunity to protest for real and radical reform. It may be that I am just tired now that I am in my forties, but I fear that in recent years International Women's Day has become a day when we talk a lot. We talk about the issues that affect women, the need for change and what the changes should be, but that is it. We talk and then the box is ticked for another year. The email inboxes of every Member of this House will today be flooded with messages of solidarity from corporations for International Women's Day, but tomorrow those corporations will go back to exploiting their workers, predominantly women, and perpetuating the gender pay gap.
On International Women's Day two years ago, the then Government ratified the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women. That move was welcomed by everyone in the political stream, but also by everybody who has worked on the front line of domestic violence services. However, two years have passed and there are still nine counties in this country without a single refuge space, while the Government continues to peddle a definition of providing one refuge space per 10,000 women rather than one per 10,000 of the population. Its choosing to use that definition makes Ireland an outlier in the EU. What is even more disturbing is that we are not even reaching that target. Under that definition, there should be 490 refuge spaces per head of population but currently there are only 141. This is at a time when the incidence of domestic violence has increased by 16% since the convention was ratified, but especially in the past year with the pandemic and the impact of lockdowns.
The requirement for self-isolation facilities has also reduced capacity. Saoirse women’s refuge in Tallaght has two emergency accommodation shelters but it has had to use one of those shelters for self-isolation, which has reduced the number of families it has been able to help.It is not just in a refuge capacity that we are still failing women who are coming out of situations of domestic violence. While legal aid for barring orders is covered under the Istanbul Convention, once a woman tries to rebuild her life after coming out of a violent situation; she can face further barriers in accessing the courts.
I mention the current discriminatory system of treating tenants who are eligible for local authority housing but who find themselves in the private rental sector due to the chronic shortage of public housing differently to local authority tenants. This effectively means that women are being blocked from accessing the courts. Treating the housing assistance payment, HAP, as income is preventing women from pursuing maintenance and from defending applications for access to children. It is a deeply unfair interpretation of the law. Every Member of this House knows that HAP is paid directly to the landlord and that it never passes the account of a tenant. It is almost definitely a contravention of Airey v.Ireland, where it was found to be unreasonable to expect one to have to defend oneself in the courts. By counting HAP as income, that is what this State is effectively doing and this is happening on a weekly basis, as will be confirmed by any of the domestic violence organisations.
It appears that it is not just in the case of civil legal aid where access to justice is problematic. The lack of free legal aid for the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, is also disproportionately impacting women. In today’s edition of The Irish Times, Eilis Barry, the chief executive of the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, said that it is almost certain that many employment discrimination or sexual harassment cases are simply not being taken. This is not because those breaches of the law are not happening. Rather, it is because the victims do not have the resources to get representation. While the opportunity is technically there for victims to represent themselves at the WRC, this provision does not take into account that people on lower incomes face greater levels of time poverty. This is especially true for women who take on more care work. Therefore, even if they wanted to represent themselves, women are at a disadvantage again. Workers in the lowest-paid jobs are being put in a vulnerable position. I know there is a commitment in the programme for Government to examine the issue of access to justice but it would be good to have clarity as to whether this will be an independent investigation or one that will be carried out internally within the Department of Justice.
I would like to express my solidarity with the ex-Debenhams workers who are predominantly female. They have been on the picket line for a total of 333 days. They have campaigned with bravery and dignity in pursuit of a fair redundancy package. They chose to challenge the unfairness of their situation. On International Women's Day, I call on the Government to listen to the demands of the ex-Debenhams workers. Their first ask is to make the €3 million training fund available as a cash payment and their second ask is to pass the legislation to prevent this from ever happening to workers in the future. That would be a true acknowledgement of International Women's Day.