Seanad debates

Monday, 8 March 2021

International Women's Day: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I stand here as a very proud member of mná na hÉireann, a descendant of our ancient warriors and modern rebels, from Queen Maeve, who battled in the mountains above my home to secure ownership of the Brown Bull of Cooley, to Granuaile the pirate queen, who proved her might on sea and was a formidable force in politics, to the more recent day heroes of my party, Fianna Fáil, such as one of our founders, Constance Markievicz. When I first learned of this woman and the other women of the early 1900s, who fearlessly fought to create a free, independent country, I could not believe there were such creatures who, amidst all the inequity, believed in something so fiercely, they went against the grain to create a new republic where equality of opportunity and equal rights were promised. For a wee girl, who from about seven years old dreamt one day of being a Member of one of these Houses, Constance had me at "hello". One of the first female Cabinet Ministers and the first woman in the world to be appointed Minister for Labour in 1919, she was elected to the Dáil to sit as a Fianna Fáil TD. At the time she passed away, she was an officeholder and a representative of Fianna Fáil. It makes me so immensely proud that, in some way, we all carry on her legacy.

However, women were erased from history, their involvement in our fight for the for the Republic was ignored. They were put back in the home to give birth, to become caregivers so that the men carry on with the work they believed they were destined to do. Ireland, in many ways, has been no country for women. The actions of State and church have proven this over and over again. We can look time and again at women's status, mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries, and inadequate healthcare for women. The treatment of Noël Browne back in the day, when he tried to change things and make them a little bit better for women in this country, highlights where women were on the hierarchy of our society.

Today is about celebrating the many social, economic and cultural, political achievements of women. We all have our favourites. My mother, Carmel, my sister, Lorna, Marian Finucane, Mary O'Rourke, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Katie Taylor, Catherina McKiernan, Justice Catherine McGuinness, and Sinéad Burke are some of the many women who I look up to.

Today is a day of celebration, but it must be a day that acts as a catalyst for change. We need to use today to ask questions. Why is there still so much inequity? What can we all do, men and women? We know change needs everyone and is not for one gender to walk alone. Gender equality does not mean the differences between males and females disappear - far from it.We must create equity. Equity means recognising the glorious differences by creating fairness and a new normal so we can all achieve the same outcome. The gender pay gap is part of this inequity. In general, women in Ireland earn 14.4% less than their male counterparts. This is a critical issue and the pandemic has highlighted pay inequalities harshly. For example, in the earlier waves of job losses, female workers accounted for more than half of all pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, claims. As of 2 March 2021, the majority of women who were in receipt of the PUP were on rates below the top rate of €350 per week and accounted for the majority on the lower payment rates. The Government is progressing initiatives to address such inequalities and the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019, which will be progressed, will assist in continuing to highlight and rectify the pay gap but it cannot come fast enough.

We also will never be able to say that gender inequality is gone until prejudice is overcome and we have eliminated the irrational bias people can have against somebody just because they are female. Equal rights are not enough. This inequality also exists in our minds, our biases and prejudices and remains to be fixed. We must tackle this unconscious bias. For example, when I was running in the 2019 local elections, I cannot count how many times I was asked who was going to look after my children. Imagine asking a man that question. It is something that simply would not come up. Moreover, the lack of inadequate childcare provision in this country is part of that unconscious bias. Part of our bias comes from our laws, our Constitution. We must mature as a country and realise that in cases where our Constitution, the basis for our laws, is outdated and innately biased against women, it must be changed. Article 41.2 effectively states a woman's place is in the home. This article refers to the State recognising the support women give in our country but it is just a platitude and platitudes do not pay the bills. Article 41.2 must be amended to be gender-neutral and to acknowledge the role of care in Irish society and there is a reason we are catching up on providing that adequate care for our most vulnerable. Why would the State choose to provide childcare or elder care when women were banned from the workplace? Their place was in the home, to look after their children and when that was done, to look after their aging parents. A women's place is where she chooses to be. A man's place is where he chooses to be. It is the job of the State to recognise this. The Constitution is an important document and it should be respected and protected but it must protect all of us.

This brings me to the value of our care economy. Millions of euro are provided to the State every year by men and women. However, there is a real inconsistency: care is mostly done by women, making possible much of the paid work which drives our market economy. Care work is also essential for advancing human capabilities, yet it tends to be unpaid. It is undervalued and often taken for granted. We must be radical, ambitious and willing to change. We must establish a working group to fully examine the value of care in our economy. It must highlight the critical contribution care workers make and help to ensure policies which recognise it. The division of paid and unpaid work is strongly gendered. We all know the supports for caring are at a low level and I can attest to the fact that combining paid work and caring is difficult.

There is so much I wish to say today but I simply do not have time. Gender-based violence, domestic violence and abuse, be it virtual or real, must be urgently addressed. However, today I choose to challenge. I choose to challenge those who stand in our way and those who do not put value on diversity and difference. I challenge us all to not leave any woman behind, to not make it an equality of privilege. We must hear the female voices and their stories. We need to be empowered by what women have done before us and what they have achieved in much harder times. It means an incredible amount to me to stand here as a daughter of Carmel O'Reilly, a granddaughter of Brigid O'Neill and of MaryRose McCann, who worked the land, created life, shaped the world and created a legacy today. I thank them and thank the woman who made all this possible. Seo é lá na mban. Éirigh suas agus bí láidir.


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