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Orla O’Connor: Properly valuing care is crucial to women’s equality

Published: Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Across the span of our lifetimes, we are all likely to care for and receive care from others. Both are deeply meaningful and essential experiences.  

This week, the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality will announce whether they endorse the recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality.  

The citizens recommended three changes to the Constitution: one to amend the definition of discrimination to include gender discrimination, one to broaden the definition of the family, and one to amend Article 41.2 so that it recognises the work of all carers, not just women in the home.  

Many people view Article 41.2’s emphasis on women’s place in the home as sexist and outdated and believe it should be swiftly deleted. The recommendation we at the National Women’s Council have made to the Oireachtas is that 41.2 should be not deleted but amended, in line with the Citizens’ Assembly recommendation. We would like to see an amendment that recognises the value of care – by all people, not only women – within the home and the wider community. 

We believe that this Constitutional reform would provide a strong symbolic commitment which, if combined with investment in social infrastructure and public services, could truly deliver a caring society.  

Care is the single biggest issue facing women in Ireland. From a young age, girls are taught that they should provide care to those around them. As girls grow up, this translates into an over-representation of women in the “caring professions” – which do not command the same salaries as those, for example, in the male-dominated STEM or tech sectors. 

This cultural assumption that women are society’s natural carers, coupled with the gender pay gap, also means women are predominately the ones who fill the gap left by the State’s chronic underfunding of care.  

Often, when women care for their loved ones – elderly relatives, sick friends, or children – this crucial work goes unpaid and unrecognised. Many of the women who provide this care are in and out of unemployment as they struggle to both care and earn a living. They may have to move to part-time work, or unusual shift patterns, or take career breaks.  

And there are also those who, without care, cannot engage with society as they would like. Disabled people, older people, and people going through illness all have a right to decent care. They have a right to lead independent lives with support for additional needs. Yet, at this moment, at least 44,000 hours of home care support are not being delivered because of a shortfall in staff.  

Many of the women who provide this care come from migrant communities. During the pandemic, carers came from Direct Provision centres to care for those in nursing homes. Our nurses hail from across the globe. It is important that the gratitude and respect extended to these front-line workers during the pandemic translates into a wage packet which supports a dignified life. A referendum could ensure that women who have been economically marginalised while caring for others are themselves cared for.  

The Citizens’ Assembly are not the only body to recommended amendment over deletion of 41.2 to the Oireachtas Committee. The Constitutional Convention, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women have all made similar recommendations. All these bodies know the importance of acknowledging care work.  

For too long, Ireland has underinvested in the care economy, relying instead on the unpaid or under-paid care labour of women, including many young and migrant women. At NWC, we see a referendum and Constitutional reform as a way of reframing the value our society puts on care.  

Valuing care as a society means having decent pay and working conditions for carers and a social welfare system that ensures they have an adequate standard of living. Valuing care includes supporting women and men to combine unpaid care with paid employment through better, paid family leave and accessible, affordable, quality childcare. Valuing care means meeting the support needs of disabled people of all ages, of older people, and of people with illnesses.  

By recognising and remunerating the work of carers, men would also be freed up and encouraged to take on more of the responsibilities and rewards of care.  

Care is central to the human experience and to women’s equality and this must be reflected in our Constitution. Successive governments have promised a referendum on this article. It must now be amended to secure real equality, not only for women, but for all Irish society. 


Orla O’Connor is the director of the National Women’s Council  

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent on 13 December 2022