Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 March 2024

International Women's Day: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I begin by welcoming all present to the Chamber, particularly our guests in the Public Gallery, and wishing everyone, especially my female colleagues, a happy International Women's Day. As Minister with responsibility for gender equality, International Women's Day is significant. It is a reminder of my Department's mission of working towards a fair, equal and inclusive society where rights are respected and all people can reach their full potential. In particular, empowering women and girls is a key priority of Ireland’s domestic and foreign policy with the overarching goal of creating a fairer and more sustainable society. Notably, through the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality and the subsequent Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality, a clear and sharp focus has been brought to the specific measures that we can and must take to advance gender equality. On Friday, the Irish people will go to the polls to make their voices heard on the Government's proposals to amend the Constitution to provide for a wider concept of family, to remove text on the role of women in the home and to enshrine a recognition of the value of care.

Although International Women’s Day is a date of major significance, for the Government the goal of achieving gender equality should not be relegated to a single day each year. It is an ongoing priority exemplified by the practical measures we have taken over the past three and a half years to advance gender equality. The Government has taken comprehensive steps to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, in Ireland. It has published and begun the implementation of the third national strategy on DSGBV and, crucially, has established a new agency, Cuan, that is dedicated to tackling domestic violence recognising that the response to domestic violence was fragmented across a range of Departments and State agencies. We are now bringing them together in order that we can place more focus on tackling DSGBV. This approach was inspired by our engagement with NGOs and the new agency was co-designed with these NGOs, which are doing such incredible work in this sector. Last November, my Department introduced five days' paid leave for victims of domestic violence with Ireland being one of the first European countries to introduce this as a statutory right recognising the risk that victims of DSGBV face of falling into poverty. Employees who are experiencing domestic violence can now access five days of paid leave helping them access necessary supports. I hope this leave has already helped women experiencing domestic violence to remain in employment and to achieve their full potential.

The Government has also taken a range of measures to promote gender equality more widely within the workplace. The gender pay gap is a key measurement of women’s economic empowerment. My Department introduced gender pay gap reporting in 2022, which requires organisations to report on their gender pay gaps across a range of metrics encouraging them to reflect on their gender pay and the drivers behind it. Reporting began in 2022 for organisations with more than 250 employees and will now be extended to those with more than 150 employees. We have also brought in breast-feeding breaks for mothers who have returned to work and expanded family leave entitlements for working parents. From August, parents of children aged under two will have an individual entitlement to nine weeks' paid parental leave to care for their child. This has increased from two weeks' leave per child when this Government took office. Furthermore, my Department has introduced the right to request flexible working for parents and carers as part of the Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, due to be commenced later this week.

Care is a fundamental value in our society. We must acknowledge that women remain disproportionately responsible for unpaid care work. In the workplace, women are also over-represented in lower-paid roles in the care sector. There has been an unprecedented 70% increase in investment in the childcare sector since 2020 and major reforms have introduced in the national childcare scheme. This investment and these reforms have cut costs for parents. From September 2024, parents will see a 50% reduction in the cost of childcare, as I committed to two years ago. These reforms and investment have meant an improvement in the sustainability of childcare services and, importantly, have meant better pay for the women and men in the sector. We know that it is predominantly women who work as early years professionals and give such dedication and care to children and young people. Over 73% of them saw a pay increase, many of them for the first time, as a result of the employment regulation order this Government signed. We have delivered on our commitments in terms of early years but our work in this area is not yet done and I am continuing to make sure that the very dedicated and skilled workforce in early years are paid their worth and encouraged to remain within this sector.

While steps have been taken to improve equality for women in their individual workplaces, significant progress has also been made to empower women of diverse backgrounds to participate in politics, leadership and public life at all levels of decision-making. In this regard, the statutory minimum gender quota for male and female candidates from political parties standing for election increased from 30% to 40% in February 2023. In December 2022, statutory maternity leave for councillors was introduced for the first time. I have outlined my commitment to introducing practical and effective maternity leave for Members of the Oireachtas. Legislative proposals to provide for this leave are being developed. We also intend to allow for maternity leave to be delayed in cases of serious illness following proposals from the Irish Cancer Society.

The Government has also made strides on women's health. Investment of €140 million since 2020 has enabled several milestone developments. These include a free contraception scheme for women aged between 17 and 31 and a publicly funded assisted human reproduction treatment scheme. Sixteen of 20 planned see-and-treat ambulatory gynaecology clinics are now operational.Six specialised menopause clinics are operational. We have seen two specialist endometriosis clinics set up and perinatal mental health services are provided in all 19 maternity hospitals. As I have outlined today through a selection of key examples of the Government's far-reaching actions, I reiterate the Government's commitment to taking concrete steps to advance gender equality in Ireland. I look forward over the coming year to continuing to work with all Senators as we consistently aim to revitalise our commitment to achieving gender equality between men and women.

I will turn briefly to the two referendums taking place on Friday. Almost since the ink was dry on our Constitution, Article 41.2 has been controversial. This provision serves as an outdated and prescriptive view of women's role in Irish society. Justine McCarthy best summed it up yesterday in The Irish Times when she wrote:

the article doesn't say ... a woman's place is in the home ... it actually says something [much] stronger. It says [that a woman's] life and mothers' duties are in the home. [This] is sexist, reductive and insulting.

Yet, this is a view that has remained in our Constitution for almost 90 years. Friday will offer the opportunity to embrace a much wider vision. It will enshrine care in all its forms as a fundamental value in our State, and it will oblige the State to strive to support that care. This is a new legal obligation and the courts, as the judicial arm of the State, will be required to interpret and imply the article as appropriate in cases where the provision of support for family care is an issue. Aligned with this change, the vote on Friday is to extend the definition of what constitutes a family within Bunreacht na hÉireann. If passed, this will act to include tens of thousands of families, many of them headed by a woman, within the constitutional recognition and protection of the family in Article 41. These two amendments, if passed, will represent a strong statement by the Irish nation and will also represent a significant step in our journey to a more inclusive country. I urge everybody to give a strong "Yes, Yes" on Friday.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister. Friday, 8 March is International Women's Day worldwide but sadly, Ireland has much progress to make in truly supporting women in 2024. It is important on this occasion to salute and support the courageous sportswomen who face the existential threat to their pursuits. I commend Irish pool champion Kim O'Brien who refused to play a biological male competitor and forfeited the European championship pool final recently. It is highly regrettable that women are forced to take a stand because politics fails to protect women and our interest. Sportswomen inspire young girls to pursue discipline, skill and mastery. What message do we send as a country to our girls when we tell them that they are not important enough to have legal protection in their pursuit of their dreams? Do we care that a man can run a race or swim in their lane at a much faster rate? By failing to protect women in this arena the Government risks erasing women's sports altogether and is an affront to the world-class sportswomen Ireland has produced. What will it take to reach breaking point? Will a female boxer be sacrificed in the name of equality and forced to compete against a biological male who identifies as a woman? Without constitutional protection of her identity how could she feel recognised and safe and defend her human right to compete with peers of her sex? No man can ever be considered the physical peer of a woman and to suggest so is insidious. Biological men now occupy women's prisons. This is a harrowing reality and an affront to the rights of women in our prison system. Women can only truly be physically safe when women's spaces are formally and rigidly protected. Domestic violence refuges are at risk. The entire premise of these centres is the protection of vulnerable and endangered women. We cannot take for granted the success and stability these centres offer, and their success is attributed to these centres being women run and women-led services. The trauma, danger and violence women face at the hands of harmful men cannot be trivialised for the sake of political opportunism.

On the matter of political opportunism, this vote on Friday is a waste of millions of euro on what is inconvenient language for the Government. Much of the commentary on the referendums talks about the need to amend Article 41.2.1° of the Constitution. Is it demeaning, sexist and outdated, to quote a few TDs who have spoken on this provision? This article in the Constitution is sadly endlessly misquoted as saying that a woman's place is in the home. In fact, the article instead acknowledges the unique role of mothers and women and particular life stages of the vast majority of women, and salutes their heroic role as mothers. According to the CSO, the population of female workers who work part-time is more than three times higher than the proportion of males at 23% and 7%, respectively. This is a clear demonstration of women balancing their home life and work commitments. Women balance the many demands of life between fulfilling jobs and careers and their own families. Those who seek to undermine the representation of mothers in the Irish Constitution are out of touch with the lives lived by most women in Ireland. Single mothers in particular are often the primary or sole caregivers in the home and juggle this heroic feat balancing work and personal life at the same time. To all the mothers of Ireland I say, we recognise you. Mothers are free to choose to balance their home life, their work life and their individual personal life. For anyone else to vote away the pedestal on which the Irish Constitution rightly holds you dear is nothing short of a tragedy. It endangers the hard-fought privileges enjoyed by mothers today.

Where this Government is intent on dismissing and ignoring the needs of women, we can turn to our European neighbours to see good examples of positive legal provisions for women, mothers and their families. Hungary, in particular, leads the way in tackling its demographic crisis and acutely understands that empowering women with the freedom to choose to stay at home or have favourable tax and labour conditions is fundamentally pro-women and pro-mothers. In Hungary, mothers between 25 and 30 have been offered an enormous tax relief since the start of 2023. If a Hungarian family goes on to have four or more children they are income tax-free for life. Why should Ireland strongly consider similar pro-women and pro-family policies? It is because fertility rates in Hungary have risen by approximately 25%, which is above the EU average. As we face demographic decline, I call on the Government to truly support the majority of women who are mothers or hope to be mothers in the future. For those women who are young, and in the future will become mothers, the failure of the housing crisis is economically impeding people in their 20s from starting a family of their own. Some 68% of the people in this country between the ages of 25 and 29 live at home with their parents. Starting a family or having their own home is out of reach for most people in their prime years of fertility. According to the CSO, the average age of first-time mothers in 2022 was 31 and a half years, down by one year from 2021 and up by from 25 in 1973. The average age of mothers at maternity for all births registered in 2022 was 33.2 years, down by 0.1 from 2021 and up from 29 in 1973. As a majority of women are now waiting until they are past the peak years of their fertility and health before having children, we cannot ignore the failure of the Government to provide incentives to tackle our demographic decline. Supporting women with pro-family and pro-woman policies would help enable this. This Government has created policies it deemed appropriate for unplanned pregnancy but what about the emerging issue of unplanned fertility and unplanned childlessness? In an age where people have critically or mockingly asked what a woman is, this vote is a danger and a sinister attack on the identity of all women.The politically correct and cultural radicals want to erase any understanding of the term "woman", which is rooted in science, reality and common sense. The Government is falling over itself to join these ideologues. The consequences of changing the Constitution echo to the depths of all parts of life. If a woman cannot be recognised as distinct from a man, with her own unique characteristics and irreplaceable role as mother, then the question must arise as to who she is. I urge all the people out there this Friday to go out and vote against the amendments the Government has put down. I will be asking the people to vote "No, No" on this International Women's Day on Friday.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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My gosh. In the words of Miley Byrne, "Well, holy God." There was a whole lot going on there, Senator Keogan. One of many things that struck me is that you said you speak for the mammies of Ireland. You certainly do not speak for me and I am a mother of Ireland.

Photo of Eileen FlynnEileen Flynn (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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You do not speak for me. Please do not put us all in that wee box. Do not do it. It is unbelievably insulting and shocking the stuff that comes out of your mouth. We are all able to question but you take a tiny grain of question and go with it and run down that rabbit hole as quickly as you possibly can to get those Twitter likes and get the videos up there as quickly as possible. It is soul-destroying.

You rightly said the referendum is not about the woman's place in the home. We have to look at what the wording is. It is about a woman not neglecting her duties in the home. This might not have hindered some people but it hindered an awful lot. They were not legally hindered but the cultural norm and cultural attitude that the State derived from that article was that women were meant to be at home.

You delivered fantastic fertility rates, with all the statistics. You want women to have as many children as possible. That sounds a little bit like The Handmaid's Tale, I have to say. This is about women's equality. You spoke about a right to choose. Thankfully, we now have the right to choose many things that we never had before. By virtue of you being in the House, you have a right to speak and I have a right to retort and disagree with you. It is unbelievably insulting that you come in here using this façade whereby you speak for the mammies of Ireland and mammies will be written out of the Constitution. No. Potentially our Constitution will be ungendered.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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Please address the House through the Chair.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I apologise. My other half gives great care in my home. My father gave great care in my home. Some of the Senator's language is disgusting.

To go back to International Women's Day I want to acknowledge women who are in conflict. Thousands of women are suffering in war. We see on our screens every day the women in Gaza who are losing their babies straight after birth or who are not able to give birth in safe places. There are 32 conflicts ongoing at present. We are really lucky in this country that we live in such a safe place. We are lucky and privileged.

It almost seems fickle to stand here and speak about all the great things we can achieve. It seems a little bit selfish to be speaking about all the great work that has been done and all the great women and great achievements when millions of women all over the world are unsafe, suffering and cannot get educated. We should all take a step back. We live in a really good country. Someone who grows up in Ireland has an opportunity to be educated and is allowed to have ambition. They can go to university, college or higher education or whatever they want to do. We take this for granted in this country. We should always be cognisant there are millions of women throughout the world who cannot do it.

I congratulate our domestic violence agencies throughout the country. Last week, Women's Aid Dundalk launched a public evening for our new refuge that will be built in Dundalk for families and women who are in danger. The planning application is in and I hope we get it off the ground. Thankfully, the Government will fund 100% of the refuge. This is an incredible achievement. There was always matched funding that had to be got. Now, there are no worries. Once planning permission has been secured, 12 refuge spaces for families can be built. Ireland is a safe country but we can do an awful lot better. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has worked in the Department and with Tusla. I know the work done on supporting refuges and people throughout the country.

In recent years, we have had incredible advances in women's health. As a sufferer of endometriosis, I felt very neglected and unheard for many years. To now have endometriosis-focused clinics set up in the country is a big deal. People are getting care that we could have never dreamed of. It is a great testament to the Government.

There are many things I want to say but I got a little sidetracked. Previously I was accused of being very personal when speaking about the referendum but it is personal. Family is personal and care is very personal. I do not apologise for being vested in my family and invested in the care we provide to each other. I advocate for a "Yes, Yes" vote on Friday. I really hope people come out and listen to the real arguments and to what it is really about. It is about celebrating the care we all provide to each other in our families.

I congratulate Irish sportswomen. I was glued to the television last weekend. We had some highs and lows on the track. Our relay team set a new national record. Sharlene Mawdsley was absolutely ripping up the track with her fastest split in the semi-final and second-fastest in the final. As someone who loves athletics, it is fantastic to see women doing so well on an international stage.

There is are also our soccer stars. They were brilliant to see during the World Cup. I have four sons who are addicted to football. They watch all football. We sat down and watched the Women's World Cup. We watch football and sport and talented people at their best. Those advances did not exist when I was younger. We have come a long way in many ways.

As a very proud nation, one with an awful lot of freedoms that we need to protect, we should always be cognisant that when we step up here, we speak for other women throughout the world who do not live in safe conditions. They would love the opportunity to choose. They would love an opportunity to be able to choose when they have children and when they do not want to have children. They would love an opportunity to choose to be educated, to get married or not to get married.Some in this country take that for granted and want us to remain in an antiquated space where women's duties are in the home and that they are only recognised in the Constitution as such.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share my time equally with Senator Maria Byrne.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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It is an enormous privilege to be here again for International Women's Day and on the eve of a very important referendum on Friday to change Article 41.2. That article has let women down for a couple of reasons. It uses limiting language. As the Minister described and as I wished to point out myself, it refers to a woman's life within the home and a mother's duties in the home, which firmly puts the onus on women to take on caring duties.

The amendment also lets women down where a parent does want to be at home and be the primary home carer. The State has not lived up to the commitment that they shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour outside the home. That can be seen in the tax code where it benefits married couples who both work over single-income married households in tax individualisation. The policy has been to encourage two-income households and penalise stay-at-home parents, although we have tried to rectify that in recent years. Then, again, the State does not adequately provide support if both parents do want to work and need to work. There is the level of availability of childcare, care services and therapies. Moreover, all those parents, mainly mothers, who make up for the lost services in disability, for instance, consistently support and fight for their children. There is also the cost of care, which is a barrier to employment as well. Consequently, many women reach the point where it becomes not worth it to try to juggle everything. After all of that, and as many women have pointed out over the last few weeks, we still end up with the double shift and doing the majority of care work even if we work full-time.

I do not want to sound like America Ferrera's soliloquy from "Barbie" but the struggle to juggle is a genuine daily struggle. However, it can feel impossible to get the balance and our choices right. Therefore, in terms of Article 41.2, the status quo cannot remain and things must change. It is healthy to have a debate about the matter although I am not sure I would look to Hungary as a poster child for human rights and equality. There are lots of people, women and men, who want the best of both worlds. We want to be able to care for our children and to be able to work. As the Minister will know, I am a big advocate of core working hours as it allows people to balance caring duties and work in a non-gendered way. Countries like Finland are doing that, where men spend more time with their children than any other country and where more women work full-time.

We need to see as much attention being given to childcare provision and availability as to costs. We know that when we put our energy into improving childcare, that it works. We also need to see changes in maternity and paternity care and to support people to be able to stay at home. From where I stand, I want to be able to do the role of a carer and be able to work, and for my husband to have the same opportunities to do that, and the same for all the men whom I know.

Finally, I wish to pay tribute to the migrant women in our shared community of Dublin 15. Indian women are the highest paid cohort in Ireland. A lot of them work in ICT and STEM and I see the influence that this is having on schools and on my children growing up. It all helps to change Ireland for the better and to make us stronger. I am so incredibly proud to live in and work for a diverse community.

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to discuss this all-important issue. I also thank Senator Currie for sharing time.

I wish happy International Women's Day to everybody present and especially to my female colleagues. We will celebrate the day on Friday. International Women's Day stated in 1909 in the USA. That is quite a long time ago and the day has been celebrated for many years.

The Minister in his speech referred to how far we have come in terms of gender equality and addressing gender-based violence. I pay tribute to organisations in Limerick like ADAPT House, which is 50 years in existence. Certainly it was far before its time. There are so many organisations that are now looking after people who have suffered from gender-based violence but ADAPT House started 50 years ago to look after people who were then called "battered wives". While it is not correct to call somebody that term now, that is how its work started. It is incredible the amount of work and care that the people working there provide. There is also Thomond House and the Southill inclusion hub in respect of domestic violence. I want to highlight those three organisations as they go above and beyond the call of duty to look after women.

The Minister referred to the fact that we have come a long way in terms of things like breastfeeding. Limerick was the first breastfeeding city in Ireland and I compliment the council at the time that drove that project. I agree that we have come a long way but we still have a long way to go.

As for women in politics, when I was first elected in 1999 there were three females out of 21. There is now six women out of 40 but that is still not enough. The number is too small. In terms of the general election, the percentage of female Deputies has increased from 30% to 40%. There are no quotas for local authorities and perhaps that is something we should consider.

I compliment the Minister present and the Minister for Justice on the amount of work that they have done on the whole area of sexually-based violence. I say that because it is an area that was brushed under the carpet for many years and people were not looked after.

In respect of women's health, there is now a perinatal unit in most maternity hospitals. I was in the maternity unit in Limerick but it is so small that it is the size of a boxroom and is used to hold filing cabinets. The hospital has not got the space to develop proper facilities. We need to give these areas proper attention.

In respect of women in politics, maternity leave has been introduced but it needs to be introduced in the Dáil for us to encourage more females to participate in politics. I know that the Minister is committed to such provision and we need to see it happening sooner rather than later. Many females have so much to contribute but they feel that they are at home, supporting their families, which prevents some people from putting their names forward to stand for election.

Finally, Senator McGreehan referred to women in sport. Last weekend, I watched the indoor athletics competition. Sarah Lavin from Limerick broke two personal bests and the women's relay team did very well. Certainly there are many inspirational females who inspire young people who are coming along behind them. In terms of Ireland, we have so many inspirational females that we now have a greater percentage of females on boards. While the number needs to increase more I note it has started to move in the right direction. I am going to return to the subject of women in politics. When I was running for my first time, I met a man at a doorstep who told me he could not vote for me because I was a woman and would not know what to do. We have come a long way from that. It actually did happen. I want to see us progress further. I thank the Minister for his commitment today.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I am sharing my time with Senator Flynn.

I thank the Minister. I am delighted to see him and I welcome him to the Chamber. The statements on International Women's Day make me a little uncomfortable because, in the past few years, they have been very bound up in girlboss feminism or spend-money feminism.

Listening to Senator Keogan, I was actually reminded of why the statements are so needed and important. We now seem to have a movement not back to traditional feminism but to traditional advocates for women who want to reduce us to our reproductiveness, not choice. I did not expect in 2024 to hear a reference to Hungary as a beacon of progress. It reminds me why International Women's Day is as important as it is.

I welcome Anahit Baghshetsyan to the Chamber. I thank both her and Dara Meehan for the speech I am about to deliver.

International Women's Day provides us with the opportunity to celebrate the very significant role and enormous potential of women in our lives and worldwide. It is also a day for reflection on which we remember the many women who inspired the societal progress that is very visible today. However, on this day it is imperative that we recognise that this progress is enjoyed only by some. Gender equality and empowerment remain inaccessible to many women in Irish communities and worldwide.

While I stand here delivering my statement, young women and girls in Gaza are nowhere near celebrating their rights today, and International Women's Day will quite understandably pass without their knowing the significance of the date because they are being deprived of basic human rights, freedom, food, water and shelter. They are being deliberately starved as a weapon of war. Since 7 October, women and children have comprised about 70% of the people who have died in the region. The two women's shelters that were in Gaza are now closed and a lack of quality telecommunications and consistent electricity blackouts restrict their ability to provide services remotely. Mothers and newborns are in non-functioning maternity hospitals in Gaza. They must share beds and are discharged a few hours after giving birth. They must give birth without medication and have C-sections without medication.

Regardless of the shortage of staff and supplies, the rate of birth in Gaza since October is the equivalent of one birth every ten minutes, according to UNICEF. While talking about the progress that Hungary is supposedly making in respect of the fertility crisis, Senator Keogan did not mention the women who must give birth unmedicated in Gaza and have C-sections without pain relief. Young women and girls are far from celebrating their rights and they have been deprived of the most basic human rights. When talking about human rights for women and girls, it is important that we remember them today.

As I deliver my statement, women in Yemen are being stripped of their freedom of movement by local authorities. Those restricting them are harming their ability to access work, education, healthcare and travel. Instead of ensuring access to clean water and necessary aid, the warring parties are focusing their efforts on strengthening the barriers to women's freedom of movement. Women in Yemen are losing their right to celebrate 8 March.

It is important that we celebrate and make statements today but it is more important that we recognise the women worldwide who on Friday will still not have basic access to services. It is important that we be their voice in this Chamber, recognise them today and stand with them in solidarity on International Women's Day, knowing that progress is not being made if women face such horrific hardship in conflict countries.

Photo of Eileen FlynnEileen Flynn (Independent)
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I thank Senator Moynihan for sharing her time with me. I very much appreciate it.

As a member of the Traveller community and probably one of the only women in both Houses from an ethnic minority, I am sick to the pit of my stomach of the do-gooders in the absence of the inclusion of Muslim women and Black women and of our voices being heard equally around the table.

The Minister spoke about the gender equality committee. While I welcome its action plan, very little has been done for minority women in this country under the current Government and previous Governments. We have a women's movement in this country that is for white middle-class women. Too often, it leaves behind the women from ethnic minority groups. I might not look like I am from an ethnic minority group; unfortunately, however, I have to bat my way in for my voice to be truly heard in these Houses and at committee meetings.

Today, I was at a brilliant event celebrating women MPs in Europe. It was absolutely fantastic. There were Muslim women and Black women present but there was not one mention of diversity in the context of women in politics. A participation rate of 40% was mentioned. Gender equality includes background, race and every gender. It should include women from the Traveller community, Black women, Muslim women and disabled women. It is meant to be for all of us. In this House, all the women are white. Not one woman apart from me is from an ethnic minority group. We must not sit here every single year on International Women's Day making the same speeches.

Today, I am as hurt as I was the very first time I came in here to make a speech on this subject because little or nothing has changed for women on the ground. Women from my community are suffering addiction and domestic violence. Young children of 15 years can be married in this State by the Church, although not by the State. Why is that not monitored? Why are young children from my community – 15 year-old-girls – not looked after? Why do those young children not have the same opportunity as white middle-class children? I am standing here genuinely feeling as false as false can be, and to a certain extent I feel many of the people around me are the do-gooders. We must not have any more do-gooders; we can do things for ourselves. Give us space at the table. When the Minister talks about 40% participation in politics by women, he should please include all women. Organisations such as the National Traveller Women's Forum, the Irish Refugee Council, the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland and Disabled Women Ireland should include us.

As a mother, I do not want my two little girls, Billie and Lacey, to experience any of the inequality I have had to experience in this country. I will be voting "Yes" with regard to the definition of "family". I was reared by my father. My mother passed away when I was ten years of age and it took all my mother's family and my father to rear me. I was in an accident and was practically reared by nurses in Our Lady's Hospital as well. The definition of "family" can include absolutely anything and I will be voting "Yes". As a mother, I do not believe Senator Keogan is speaking on behalf of all of us.

I do not want to be standing here next year giving the same old meaningless speech. When we talk about equality for women, we cannot just put sanitary towels and tampons into toilets and say, "There you go now" in the belief that addresses inequality related to poverty. While I welcome this, we need good, meaningful health services that we can trust for all women in this country, including those from minority groups. We have been left too far behind.

I ask the Minister to be a Minister for change. When he talks about 40% representation in politics, he should include all women, especially those on the margins of society. It is not just a matter of gender because, along with that, there are racial and cultural differences. All these need to be celebrated. In the other House, you will not see any diversity. Until diversity is visible in spaces and we create spaces for women from my community, Black women, Muslim women and transwomen, we will not have made progress. I am all for transwomen's rights and do not want to exclude them in my speech today. We need a parliament that is more inclusive and we do not need any more do-gooders in our women's movement. Let us in and we can do it for ourselves.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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We are speaking about International Women's Day on Friday when the central focus has to be the fact that we will be making really important decisions.

Senator Flynn outlined the multiple areas where policies and services are still falling short and the many really good actions that we set out. I was proud to be a member of the Joint Committee on Gender Equality. Instead of producing a report, we produced an action plan. We listed the many things that could be done in terms of gender equality and supporting care and we outlined not only that they could be done, but when they should be done. We set out a blueprint for delivering in a meaningful way, on care and for families and for women, and for dismantling the inbuilt inequalities that are deep in the State, in the social protection system and woven into every part of our policy-making and established systems.

We also called for a referendum. We also called as a committee, clearly, for the removal of the absolutely unacceptable language that we have currently in Article 41.2 and for its replacement with something that would recognise care in its fuller sense. On this International Women's Day, I will be going out and I will be voting, "Yes" and "Yes". I will be voting for diverse families to recognise that marital families are not the only families in the State and I will be voting to say that care actually matters and needs to be visible.

As a feminist, one of the great longstanding issues that I have campaigned on for 20 years is to make care visible and to say that care matters because even though it is the lifeblood of society, it is not really recognised. When I talk about gender budgeting and when we campaigned for gender budgeting and equality budgeting, central to that is that when we talk about budgets, we need to talk about the invisible work of care and how to make it visible. We need to talk about the need for care and how important it is in society. We need to talk about the value of care and the meaning of care, the fact that we are all in this in a meaningful way together and that we do things because we care. Being really clear, right now care is not in the Constitution. There is nothing that reflects care in the Constitution.

Also, there is nothing in the Constitution, and in Article 41.2 now, about obligations of the State. There is nothing about rights for women. What we have right now, in Article 41.2, relates to the duties of married mothers. That is what is in the Constitution. The reference is to the duties of married mothers and that the State might "endeavour" to help them out and help them stay in the home. That is what is there - weak language and a message that it is up to mothers and it is their duty to deliver not necessarily on care. We have also heard a lot about what terms such as "durable", mean. What I know is that "duties" is a term that maybe needs to be examined because "duties" does not necessarily mean care. It could be cooking and cleaning. It could be all of the many tasks and impositions that have been placed on women over years under the idea that women have duties and that those duties are in the home. That is what is there right now. I will be going out and I will be pushing for care to get recognised and be made visible.

It is mainly women providing that care. That is why recognising care is a feminist issue. That is why recognising care and putting it in the Constitution is a step forward because we say the work that women have been doing for decades matters and it is work that is not theirs because they are women. It is work that everyone should be doing, that all family members are contributing to and that the State should strive to support.

I wanted the language to be stronger. We put forward an amendment to say it should focus on the bonds between family and community because the responsibility for care goes much wider. That is a battle we will continue to have to make sure the State is stepping up in delivering and supporting care. That is why we have the action plan - all those really concrete meaningful actions that are there in the gender equality action plan. Each one of them needs a campaign. I will certainly continue to campaign on each of those but I know that I will be stronger doing so if there is a section in the Constitution that is marked care. I believe that we will be weaker doing it if, in 2024, we send a signal that mothers' duties are in the home, that the way the State needs women to contribute is in the home, that that is where their value is. First of all, we will be tying women in the home. I welcome that the new language is not confined to the home. It talks about care happening outside the home. It talks about care between family members wherever that may be - care that might include personal needs assistance and all of the things that family members need to participate in fully.

Going back to that language that is there right now, the idea that this is something dreamed up by this Government is not true because I have been campaigning for changes on this and I am a latecomer to it. For over a decade, not the citizens' assembly but the constitutional convention, which Labour brought in in 2013, called for the removal of Article 41.2 and gender neutral language that recognised care. The citizens' assembly called for gender neutral language that recognises care. They wanted the wider community in there too. That is the additional battle.

Groups and NGOs, such as the women's council, the Children's Rights Alliance and the trade unions which have been in the fight for women's rights for years, have been calling for decades for change in the Constitution and for the removal of this damaging article. The Government, to be honest, is quite a Johnny-come-lately on the issue.

The wording the Government has come up with is not necessarily the best but how people vote will not be about a message to a Government which will probably be gone in six months' time. How people vote is a message that we send to each other as citizens about what matters to us collectively and how we see each other and what should matter to us collectively is all families being treated equally. What should matter to us collectively is care being recognised, really recognised and made visible and support being pledged to it or, indeed, at least the pressure for support to be added to it.

What I really do not want is that another generation comes up with a background noise of misogyny because of the people who say: "Let us wait and we will do another referendum." It took 20 years to get to this. I do not accept that mothers should offer it up and put up with background noise misogyny in our Constitution or half the population having to accept maybe another five or ten years of background noise of misogyny in the Constitution that might get echoed, as it does, in the school playground in the joke about the women in the kitchen. How do you kick back on that joke when it is in our Constitution? I do not accept having to wait for this change. I will be pushing for "Yes", "Yes".

Because it is International Women's Day, the 9,000 women killed in Gaza and the women suffering around the world were rightly spoken about previously.I am also in solidarity with those women in Hungary, Poland and the US who have seen their rights rolled back. Let us be clear, in that there are people – not historically, but in 2024 – who would love to see the rightful frustration of people with disabilities who want better rights being weaponised against the rightful frustration of women who want equality and ending up with no progress at all. There are those who are waiting for an opportunity to push back on our rights. That is why we push forward for women, care and people with disabilities.


Hear, hear.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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As we mark International Women’s Day, we have an opportunity to celebrate women’s accomplishments in Ireland and abroad. Equally, we can use this moment to audit the culture of gender-based abuse and violence and the lack of equality that still lingers. We can also use this moment to call out sexist discriminatory behaviour and declare that it has no place in an outward-looking and confident republic, nor in any other country for that matter.

The history of International Women’s Day stretches back more than 100 years and has its origins in the early 20th century labour movement. The feminism of that period was not isolationist, but an essential element of the broader culture of socialism. A roll call of some prominent members and supporters of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, including Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, her husband Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Tomás Mac Donnchadha, Dr. Kathleen Lynn and James Connolly, confirms how that generation, which was consumed with building an independent new Ireland, understood implicitly the intersectionality of feminism, socialism and republicanism. May the example and lived experience of our forebears be a lesson to us all today.

Social media, which is a relatively young technology for which we are still negotiating boundaries, has amplified much of the sexist and violent abuse that women - citizens and politicians alike - have to endure on a daily basis. As legislators, we are duty-bound to tackle this scourge though better education and improved legislation.

We still have a distance to go in achieving full gender balance and representation in this Legislature as much as in other parts of Irish civic discourse. As a gay man who has fought throughout my life for better representation and visibility, I understand only too clearly how society suffers when some of its citizens are oppressed by virtue of their gender, their sexual orientation or any other difference. We celebrated 50 years of queer activism in Ireland last year. Embedded in that activism is a distinctive relationship with feminism. It is probably fair to say that both rode on the coat-tails of the civil rights movement in the North. There was intersectionality in that activism in the late sixties and early seventies. People were emboldened by what was happening in the North. When we historicise the LGBT civil rights movement, something that is often lacking is an acknowledgment and a "Thank you" from that movement for the hand up that Irish feminism gave us. My good friend Tonie Walsh has a queer walking tour of Dublin. On it, he stops at the former headquarters of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, a building on the corner of Dame Street and Crow Street. When he stops outside it, he tells the people on the tour that he wants to pay homage to the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement for making a space for the lesbian and gay brothers and sisters. Irish feminism made a space for us to imagine new genders and sexuality, so I salute the bravery and forthrightness of Irish women in not only having an urgent conversation about gender and sexuality, but in doing so, making a space for lesbians and gay men. I also acknowledge that many lesbians were at the forefront of Irish feminism in the seventies.

In marking International Women's Day, it is incumbent on us all to understand the meaning and value of feminism. I am proud to call myself a feminist. Let no one say that feminism is some niche pursuit. At its core, feminism is about extending rights and a voice to women who were previously unheard or marginalised. Ultimately, though, feminism is a statement that all genders have equal rights and opportunities. Let us be clear, in that extending rights to any group in society does not come at the expense of others. History shows we all benefit, as our forebears knew only too well. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day – inspire inclusion – should be a reminder that a more inclusive society is one where everyone is valued and we are all joined by a common purpose in living together with greater dignity and with increased awareness and respect for one another.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for attending to celebrate International Women’s Day. We are always delighted to welcome him to the Seanad, 40% of whose Members are women. We need to see the level of representation move upwards in the Dáil. As the Minister mentioned, we are supporting women in participating in public life, but there are many reasons women may not wish to get involved. Sometimes, it is due to the difficult and challenging behaviours we see across various media that can be targeted towards women. It is great that we see representation in the Seanad. This is a great debating space and very constructive.

I wish to highlight some matters. I was across the road at an Engineers Ireland talk on women in STEM subjects and how there was not an equal showing of young boys and girls, men and women across science, technology, engineering and maths. This has been an issue for up to 20 years. When we speak with multinationals, Engineers Ireland and the Department of Education, issues are highlighted. Two researchers in the department of maths at UCD presented at the Engineers Ireland meeting. Some of their findings pointed towards how the maths syllabus did not reflect a girl’s experience of encouraging women and young girls to take up maths at post-primary level. This is an issue. We are at full employment, which is wonderful, but there is considerable demand for people with backgrounds in STEM and half of our population – young women and girls – do not feel confident taking up those subjects or believe they will be successful in doing so. Why is that? It is pretty much down to culture. How we change that culture is up to us in government.

A number of events are happening across the country, particularly in Roscommon where Network Ireland is focusing on women entrepreneurs. It is great to see women deciding to start up their own businesses and enter the workforce. Network Ireland is holding a talk in Strokestown at 10 a.m. on Friday. In Hannon’s Hotel in Roscommon town, Roscommon Women’s Network will hold an event about inclusion and women returning to the workforce, training and getting involved in the local community. It is crucial that we see inclusion and diversity in towns across our country, particularly in counties where there traditionally may not have been as much diversity as we saw in our city centres.

The Minister spoke about health services, particularly as regards women’s health. There was an information session on endometriosis in the audiovisual room today. One in ten women is impacted by endometriosis. It is crucial that we see investment in women’s health.

I will highlight the need to vote Yes-Yes in this Friday’s referendums. Care is a crucial matter. Many women are caring at home without having the supports in place – home help or respite services – that would allow them to become more actively involved in their local communities. This is all about what we are doing as a Government to increase access to respite services, carer’s allowance and carer’s benefit. I like that, through the referendum, there will be an obligation on the State to provide care. That is exciting and will show what sort of investment we will deliver.

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. On International Women’s Day, I wish to speak about the women in my life. My grandmother, who was born in 1900 in Killorglin, came to Dublin at 16 years of age to become a primary school teacher. She participated in a citizens’ assembly in 1916 – the Rising – where she took matters into her own hands to achieve a republic of equality, which is explicitly articulated in the Proclamation. My granny retired after many years teaching in Scoil Bhríde. She went to Scoil Bhríde in 1919, which was Ireland’s first Gaelscoil, and participated in the War of Independence with the south Dublin brigade of the IRA. She was a typical woman, as we remember them on International Women’s Day. She was a teacher by day and an arsonist and freedom fighter at night. The south Dublin brigade of the IRA burnt down several police stations around the city. She was a typical woman – a multitasker.

My granny came to live with us in 1965 and I was born in 1966. She looked after me until I was ten years old. I know from growing up with my grandmother the role that women played in the liberation of this State and the role young women took putting their lives on the line to ensure that all citizens of this State – men, women and children – will enjoy equal rights and be cherished as set out in the Proclamation.

It was because of her and her stories of the role women played in the liberation of the State that I joined Óglaigh na hÉireann as a young man. It is also why I my PhD research into the experiences of my female colleagues, which revealed shockingly high levels of sexual assault, sexual abuse, discrimination and rape. I brought that forward and was subject to a campaign of the most appalling reprisal, which continues to this day. It has been reanimated because a judge-led inquiry into this culture was put in place by the current Government.

I am a feminist and I am proud to speak here on International Women’s Day. Twenty-three years ago, at the height of that reprisal, my beautiful mum passed away. Her last words to me were, “Don’t be afraid.” Those were her last words to me: do not be afraid. I then lost one of my beautiful sisters to cancer at age 41, some 21 years ago. I then lost my daughter, a little girl called Liadain, the “grey lady”. I remember my hand on her mum’s tummy, feeling her jumping and kicking. She died as a result of a cord accident at birth. I have been at all of the births of my five children and this was completely silent. My daughter would have been 21 this week.

On Friday, I will go to the polls. I have a concern about the wording of the care amendment because it gives constitutional expression to the view that the family are primary carers for people with additional needs – disabled citizens like my son. The Government edited out the recommendations that there be independent supports for full participation in the economic, social, cultural and artistic life of the State for people like my son.

Because care is primarily the responsibility of the family and because of the dysfunctional and abject discrimination against disabled citizens, my daughter, Ailbhe, who is 19, has often had to care for her older brother. Many times when she was 15 or 16, she would have to come home from school and toilet her 17-, 18- or 19-year-old brother. That is what this wording gives constitutional expression to. People will disagree with this but my views are informed by 20 years of lived experience. I have deep concerns about the wording of the care amendment because it will confine women, in the main, to caring duties within the family. Some 98% of unpaid carers within the family are women and girls and, therefore, I will vote against that. I know people will disagree with it but I do it in honour of all the women in my life, all the women of Ireland and, echoing Senator Flynn's comments, women from every ethnic group and all of our new citizens. The people of Ireland will have their say on the care referendum on Friday. Whatever the outcome, I hope we can all work together to further the rights of disabled citizens.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank Senators for their contributions on International Women’s Day. The flavour of our discussions are very much influenced by the fact we have two constitutional referendums taking place on Friday.

Senator Keogan spoke about misquoting the existing text of the Constitution. Let us set it out at the start of this discussion. Article 41.2.1° states, "In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved." Article 41.2.2° states, "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." That is the existing text that it is proposed to be deleted if there is a "Yes" vote in the care referendum on Friday.

People have their own views on that text. Some people say it is outdated and others will say it is sexist. I think it is outdated and sexist. Some people will say it is misogynistic. When I read it, I fixate on the term “neglect”. The term is laden with judgment of women who are engaged in labour outside the home. We have to remember that even if we give Article 41.2 the most positive reading possible, it still only applies to married mothers. It is not all mothers; it is married mothers. The family protected in Article 41 is only the married family. Even if it was given its most positive reading, it already makes distinctions between mothers who have a ring on their finger and those who do not.

We have debated the text of the care amendment. Much of this discussion is personal for many Senators in this room and they have said why it is personal to them. In response to what Senator Clonan said, all I can do is look to the text of the new article we are proposing to insert into the Constitution. It states: "The State recognises that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision." I strongly disagree with his view that this in any way shifts a burden from the State to the family. It recognises there is a burden on families now. “Burden” is not a word I want to use. It recognises there is a huge amount of work done by families, for example, families caring for a family member with a disability, families caring for children and families caring for their elderly parents. It states the State should do more there. It does not state that it is the primary role of families. It is important that the constitutional proposal, Article 42B, does not state that rather it recognises that where families are caring for a loved one, the State should do more. That is not a bad thing to have in our Constitution; it is a good and affirmative thing.

I can absolutely understand the frustration that the Senator and many DPOs have expressed regarding where we have been in respect of our treatment of persons with disabilities and where we are now. I absolutely recognise that. However, a “No” vote on this provision will in no way improve the situation for those with a disability or anyone involved in care. It will also in no way change the work myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, are doing. We recognise the problems with the current system and we are working to create a new department and put in a disability action plan to make things better. It is a very slow process. I can absolutely understand and I know the frustration. I meet families in my constituency every day out canvassing who speak to that. It is essential to say that my intention and the intention of the Government is not to place anything extra on families rather it is to recognise that families do so much and we as a State and Government need to do more to help them. In the three and a half years I have been Minister, we have had the opportunity to discuss the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on many occasions in this Chamber. We have had many lengthy discussions on the issue. We discussed how it happened and how it was that for decades women, mothers and their children were treated in the way they were. Different Senators had different views. People said it was the State or the politicians, the Catholic church, other churches or society at large – everyone had different views. I like the phrase Senator McGreehan used when she said Article 42 set a cultural norm at the time. I will not place all the blame on Article 41.2. However, central to how women were treated in those institutions was the legal position at the time, namely, that a woman and her child were not a family. That remains the legal position today. A single mother and her child are not a family within our Constitution. They have rights set out in other legislation but they are not a family within our Constitution. It was reiterated in the O’Meara judgment only four or five weeks ago that the family in our Constitution is only the family based on marriage.

Senator Keogan referred to single mothers as primary caregivers in many circumstances. I agree with her on that point. She said we recognise them. However, we have to also recognise that a “No” vote in the referendum on the family is an explicit vote not to recognise one-parent families. It is an explicit statement that such families remain excluded from the definition of the family in our Constitution. That is the reality of what a “No” vote in the 39th amendment on families would mean. On International Women’s Day, I do not believe that is the message we want to send to families outside of marriage, in particular the many thousands of families headed by a woman – one-parent families. We want to bring them in and that is why I will be voting “Yes” in respect of the 39th and 40th amendments.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I thank the Minister for his time.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.22 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.04 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 3.22 p.m. and resumed at 4.04 p.m.