FEMFEST is the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s flagship event for women aged 16 to 25 which provides a unique platform for their voices, perspectives and experiences to be heard.
Organised by NWCI’s Leadership Coordinator Laura Harmon, FemFest is now in its fourth year and was attended by more than 200 young women from across the country.
There is a fundamental need to invest in the development of young women as leaders and change-makers. Women are systematically under-represented in decision and power-making structures, in government, on boards and in a wide variety of senior leadership positions.
One of the rallying calls of the day was ‘No decisions about me, without me’. The process of overlooking women’s potential begins at a young age and is rooted in inequality and the propagation of traditional gender roles.
As a practical example, a group of secondary school students spoke at FemFest about how only the boys football team in their school receives sportswear, though the girls team wins as many matches and trains just as hard. They refused to accept being treated as lesser and as a result of their stand the school now benefits from free sportswear.
FemFest gives an opportunity for young women to not only explore their own capacity as leaders but garner learning and inspiration from exceptional women who have already made a significant impact on Irish society.
Among the speakers was women’s health campaigner Vicky Phelan, while panel discussions on ‘Women in Public Life in Ireland’ and ‘Feminist Future’ contained a broad range of contributors highlighting the perspectives of women living with disabilities, Traveller women, writers, academics, student leaders and human rights activists. Practical and interactive workshops were run throughout the day on activism, online campaigning and consent.
I had the privilege of facilitating two workshops on the day with a diverse group of young women in relation to consent, sexual violence and harassment. This issue is a key concern for young women as they represent the largest group of those who experience sexual violence and harassment across the world.
An Irish survey of third level students indicated that 31% of women had experienced sexual harassment, 11% experience unwanted sexual contact and the reporting rate to police or university ‘officials’ was less than 3%.
In 2017, 40% of those who attended Sexual Assault Treatment Units identified as students. Young women feel caught between empowering movements such as #MeToo and #ThisIsNotConsent which publicly call out sexual violence and harmful power dynamics, yet women in their lived reality are deeply cognisant of the failures of the criminal justice system and broader society to adequately protect and vindicate their rights.
‘Victim blaming’ attitudes are still prevalent within our culture and as a result survivors of sexual violence experience shame, guilt and the fear of not being believed if they come forward.
The workshop participants were easily able to define what consent meant to them, largely rooting it in the concept of respect, boundaries and trust.
Young women noted traditional forms of sexual violence and harassment that they are exposed to, such as street harassment, unwanted groping and verbal harassment as well as newly emerging forms of abuse in online spaces and through social media.
Behaviours include being sent unsolicited explicit imagery, having their photos shared without their consent, as well as general misogynistic comments dominating ‘group chats’.
These behaviours have the net effect of objectify young women, silencing their voices and make them feel that society is not a place where they can safely and fully participate.
The young women I encountered at FemFest were bright, engaging, powerful, creative and inspiring. I have no doubt that they are representative of young women right across Ireland. They possess enormous potential to reshape and strengthen everything from our local communities to the broader world, creating a better, more inclusive and equal society for everyone.
Empowering and listening to young women is only one part of the equation, however, we must take action in removing the barriers that prevent young women from reaching their full potential and work collaboratively with them in creating the positive changes they seek.
* Tara Brown, originally from Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, is the Coordinator of the Ending Sexual and Harassment in Third Level Education (ESHTE) EU Project with the National Women’s Council of Ireland. She holds a Bachelor in Civil Law from University College Cork, LLM in Human Rights Law from Queens University Belfast and a P.Dip in Leadership, Creativity and Innovation from University College Dublin. She has worked in the field of social justice for over 14 years, specialising in women’s rights and equality issues.