“THE damage is incalculable and will resound down the decades, into future generations”. So warned UN chief Antonio Guterres about the impact of the Covid-19 on women recently.
In Ireland, too, we have seen how the pandemic highlighted and increased the wide ranging and stubbornly persistent inequalities that women and girls still face today.
Women were left with the majority of the care work, often trying to juggle working from home or in frontline services with homeschooling. Evidence suggests that many women have had to either leave the labour market, or are downshifting their careers.
Throughout the pandemic, young women have been the group most negatively impacted by pandemic related unemployment. While unemployment has dropped from its peak in April, 2021, when a staggering 7 out of 10 women aged 15-24 were unemployed, it remains stubbornly high, with nearly half the population of young women remaining unemployed in June 2021.
As we begin to move out of the pandemic and plan for the recovery, the message from women is very clear. We cannot just go back to the ‘old normal’. Instead we must focus on creating a different society for women and girls.
With its new Strategic Plan ‘No Woman Left Behind’ the National Women’s Council is rising to this challenge and sending the clear signal that we must go in a new direction. And the pandemic has reminded us that increasingly, we must approach the key challenges for our society form an all-island perspective.
While some progress has been made in recent years, the pace of change has been unacceptably slow, and the pandemic also reversed some positive changes. In particular women from marginalised communities, including Traveller women, lone parents, disabled women and migrant women, are experiencing the impact of ongoing discrimination, sexism, poverty and exclusion. So what should our ‘new normal’ look like for women?
As we recover from the pandemic, we must transform our health service, ensuring that all health care puts women and their needs at its centre. This must include guaranteed access to the full range of maternity and reproductive health services across the country and in a State owned and governed National Maternity Hospital.
In our ‘new normal’, we must also deliver and invest in a not for profit, public childcare model. We know that this model is best at ensuring access to quality, affordable and accessible childcare for parents and decent pay and working conditions for the childcare workers. This needs to be combined with investment in extended and better paid family leave which would allow a greater sharing of caring responsibilities between partners.
Despite often better educational achievements, women remain significantly underrepresented in senior leadership roles and in boardrooms of Irish companies. And in politics, women are still missing from key decision-making tables, both at national and local level.
To counter this trend, bold and decisive action is needed. This is why the National Women’s Council is calling for the introduction of 40% gender quotas for non-State boards.
After adoption in countries including France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, quotas have influenced the number of women on boards, the performance and outcomes of decision-making bodies, and broader public attitudes.
The same should apply to our political system. Following the success of the gender quota for general election candidates, the introduction of a quota for local election candidates would create a real incentive in particular for the two largest political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, to provide a clear pathway for women to get involved.
In our ‘new normal, we must also ensure that our Constitution truly reflects the society and values that we strive for. This includes enshrining the value of care and care work in our Constitution and the clear recognition of the diversity of families that exist in Ireland.
Unfortunately, the uncertainty of the pandemic has created a political vacuum and led to an increase in far-right rhetoric and activism.
It is crucial that we clearly challenge and stand up against racism in all its forms.
We must also challenge ourselves to ensure that our campaigns and advocacy work reflects the full diversity of women’s experiences, creating and supporting inclusive spaces for women to speak out, share their experiences and advocate for the change that women need.
Only recently the Government received the final report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. The citizens recommendations provide a very detailed and comprehensive pathway to achieve gender equality and fully align with NWC’s vision for a different future.
It is a unique opportunity for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to women’s rights and finally deliver true equality for women and girls. And NWC and our members and supporters will be there to hold them to account.