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We need the appropriate resources and political will to restore and advance women’s rights and equality in Ireland.

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2017

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to deliver this joint statement, on behalf of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI); the leading women’s organisation in Ireland and coordinator of the Shadow Report, non-governmental organisations who have contributed to the shadow report and NGOs who have submitted directly to CEDAW.

The format of our statement will be to highlight six issues that are of key importance to women of Ireland:

1. Economic Independence;
2. Decision Making
3. Access to Justice;
4. Violence Against Women;
5. Women in detention; and
6. Abortion

It has been over a decade since Ireland was last reviewed by this Committee. Since then Ireland has endured an extensive period of austerity and women have suffered disproportionately as a result. Budget cuts and funding restrictions have affected frontline advocacy and support, reducing the capacity of women’s organisations to protect and promote the rights of women.  The recovery of women’s rights and the women’s sector from the protracted period of austerity is only in its infancy.

We recognise there are new commitments which have the potential, if the appropriate resources and political will is invested, to restore and advance women’s rights and equality in Ireland.

We want to see a new National Women’s Strategy, firmly rooted in clear and achievable commitments, that is rights based and includes measurable targets, indicators and expected outcomes. In particular, that Strategy must recognise that women in Ireland experience multiple discrimination and therefore actions and targets must address the inequalities experienced by Traveller and Roma women, women with disabilities and other groups of women experiencing multi layered inequalities. It is essential the Strategy explicitly adopts tackling violence against women as a high level goal, currently not envisaged by the State. Our experience of the previous strategy was that it lacked these elements and made it near to impossible for NGOs to assess the outcomes and impact for women. Therefore, we are specifically recommending the

Irish Government to implement a robust monitoring and implementation framework which clearly sets out the outcomes and impacts desired, with accountability and ownership clearly assigned to Departments or agencies, underpinned by gender proofing and gender budgeting processes. 

A key mechanism to advance women’s equality and gender mainstreaming is the introduction of public sector duty, requiring statutory and public sector bodies, to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality, and protect the human rights of employees and service users. Specifically they must identify the human rights and equality issues relevant to their functions and devise an action plan to address those issues. We recommend its full implementation.

In addition we welcome the inclusion of gender proofing and impact assessments in the 2016 Programme for Government, the Government need to identify how this process will be implemented and placed at the core of budgetary processes and decisions. The inclusion of civil society organisations and the direct experiences of women will be critical to ensuring a positive impact on social, cultural and economic equality outcomes for women. Gender and equality budgeting must take place in the wider context of the strengthening of economic, social and cultural rights, which must be included in our Constitution as per the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention.

However any real progress towards equality for women must tackle the persistent lack of comprehensive disaggregated data.

Economic Independence
Recent years have seen the widening of both the gender pay gap 14.4% and the gender pension gap 37%. The distribution of care work has not shifted to any significant degree between women and men – women undertake 93% of all childcare. Irish families continue to pay amongst the highest costs for childcare in the OECD (across the European Union, childcare costs around 12% of a family’s income, but in Ireland, it accounts for 35%) and there is a lack of out of school hours care and the childcare professionals, predominately women, are surviving on salaries just above the minimum wage. The new Childcare scheme is welcome but will require significant investment to make childcare affordable. Ireland has one of the highest percentage of low paid jobs in the developed world (OECD 2013). According to the CSO, in 2014, 50% of women workers earned €20,000 or less and the majority of workers’ dependent on minimum wage are women.  Only 16% of those receiving a full State Contributory Pension are women and cuts to pension eligibility in 2012 have resulted in cuts to the pensions of 36,000 women. Austerity policies have particularly impacted on lone parents. In 2015, 58% of lone parents experienced deprivation, and 26.2% live in consistent poverty. Lone parent “activation” by the Department of Social Protection combined with changes to the One Parent Family Payment and maintenance system have placed lone parents at an increased risk of poverty. These cuts have been the most gendered measures introduced during the austerity years, affecting 98% of women.

We need the Irish Government to:
• Establish mandatory annual gender pay gap reporting.
• Reverse cuts to pension entitlement, move to development of a Universal Pension, put women’s equality at core of pension reform.
• Legislate against insecure, non-fixed hour jobs as ‘reasonable offer of work’, recognise atypical work patterns  and establish ‘Living Wage’ through policy and practice.
• High quality affordable ECCE for children, parents and workforce.
• Set firm targets to reduce deprivation for Lone Parents, and reverse the negative, gendered effects of “activation” measures and the maintenance system.
• Gender and equality-proof all economic policies, especially budgets.

Decision making
The overwhelming number of those in positions of authority, whether elected or appointed, continue to be men. The introduction of quotas for candidates in general elections has shown that positive actions can make a significant difference. 22% of TDs are now women. However only 9% of women are on the boards of our top private companies. 1 in 4 voices on our news and current affairs radio are those of woman. Women in leadership and senior decision making positions in the public and private sector must be a core goal to achieve equality for women.

We need the Irish Government to take concrete steps and positive measures, such as legislative quotas, to increase and diversify women’s participation in decision making roles in local elections, on boards and at senior level in public and private sectors.

Access to Justice
Civil legal aid is the gateway to the realisation and enforcement of rights that protect and promote women. At present, the means test, financial eligibility criteria and the requisite financial contributions make civil legal aid inaccessible for many women. Even those who qualify for civil legal aid face long delays in seeing a solicitor. The Legal Aid Board has not yet waived the requirement for women affected by domestic violence to pay financial contributions for legal aid when seeking safety, protection and barring orders.

We need the Irish Government to commit additional resources to civil legal aid, to review the financial eligibility criteria and to end the requirement for victims of domestic violence to pay financial contributions for legal aid.

Access to justice is a key issue for survivors of historical abuse. In the case of Survivors of Symphysiotomy, Ireland's ongoing refusal to implement the 2014 recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee means that no effective remedy has been provided for these gross violations of women's human rights during pregnancy and childbirth.

We need the Irish Government to establish a fully independent, international investigation into the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland, with terms of reference and investigators to be determined by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission; and that all legal and procedural barriers to access to justice for victims, including the statute of limitations, be removed by the State party.

We also call for a full, complete and public investigation of conditions/practices in all Irish institutions - (Mother & Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries, Children's Homes, State Hospitals, Private Hospitals etc)- that forcibly incarcerated/housed unmarried mothers and/or their children, before enforcing and often illegal separating children from their mothers, mainly through adoption and fostering; the investigation should identify with appropriate & timely redress measures.

Violence against Women
At least 1 in 5 women experience physical and or sexual violence in Ireland. We welcome the signing of the EU Istanbul Convention of Violence against Women, however in order to address violence against women we need action through a series of measures. There is a significant absence of data on violence against women and of training within the individual state agencies and An Garda Siochana. The scale of intervention needed to address gender-based violence in Ireland is not reflected in resourcing. Eight years of austerity brought an average of 20% and 13% cuts, to existing already inadequate funding across sexual and domestic violence NGOs respectively against a background of increased demand. In 2015 there were 4,796 unmet requests for emergency accommodation, women and children were turned away from refuges because there simply was no space.

We view prostitution as a form of violence against women and believe that prostitution is not an equal consensual contract which both people have equal power. We welcome the the passing into law of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill and the publication of the Domestic Violence Bill and the Victims of Crime Heads of Bill.  However the issues remarked upon by the Committee in 2005, namely the low prosecution and conviction rates of perpetrators, high withdrawal rates of complaints, as well as the violence suffered by marginalized and vulnerable women, remain very significant for women in Ireland. 

We need the Irish Government to:
• Ratify the Istanbul Convention; and commit to robust data collection, with appropriate data protections for women and girls by all agencies working in the area of domestic and sexual violence.
• Increased resources for frontline state services to increase, reporting, prosecution and convictions and support for victims.
• Increase resources to NGOs and establish a transparent budgeting process for national planning of NGO services to meet the needs of women.
• Consider establishing a separate offence for domestic abuse
• Increase the emergency accommodation capacity of domestic violence services by 10% or by 14 family units every year for the next five years.

Women in detention
Women in prison are often characterised by social disadvantage, poverty, low levels of education and are likely to have experienced abuse and trauma. Disproportionate number of females committed to prison for non-violent offences. Ireland’s two female prisons are consistently the most crowded in the State as well as gaps in the provision of treatment services. There is no open prison for women and only one Dublin-based step-down facility.

We need the Irish Government to implement gender-specific non-custodial options for women, and post-release supports including supported step-down residential facilities, which should be geographically spread.

Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world which demonstrates a lack of trust in women to have power and control over their own bodies.  Article 40.3.3, the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution grants a foetus equal legal protection to a pregnant woman. Abortion is a reality in Ireland as women continue to seek abortions outside of the state and an increasing number of women are taking abortion pills on line. As well as being inconsistent with international human rights law this causes real harm to women.  UN treaty bodies have consistently criticised Ireland’s abortion laws and in 2005 the CEDAW Committee expressed their concern about the consequences of the very restrictive abortion laws in Ireland.  It is fundamental to progress women’s rights in Ireland that the government commit to a referendum to remove the 8th amendment.

We need the Irish Government to commit to a referendum to repeal the eight amendment.

Women’s rights in Ireland still fall short of full equality. Older women, women experiencing homelessness, women in direct provision and seeking asylum, women with addiction, migrant women, women living with disabilities, Traveller and Roma women, rural women and women in prison; face multiple discrimination because of their gender, and consequentially, face considerable challenges in playing a meaningful and equal role in society. The role of NGOs to represent and advocate for women’s rights is critical and requires ongoing attention, inclusion and investment.  As NGOs we recognise women’s rights have seen progress, but we also have witnessed their fragility which can be eroded by fiscal choices. We urgently need to increase the pace of change for women’s equality in Ireland so that discrimination against women can be eliminated and women have full choices in all aspects of their lives.

Thank you