Opinion: Do we need a Minister for Women? 2 years ago

Opinion: Do we need a Minister for Women?

Speaking at a publicity event in Clontarf Castle recently, activist Vicky Phelan called for a new Ministerial role to be created – a Minister for Women.

Ms Phelan stated that it was her own experience, and that of other women who had confided in her over the last year, that led her to realise that women are treated differently in Ireland.

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“The stories I’ve heard over the last year-and-half are too difficult not to say something is going on."

Ms Phelan says that women protesting are not taken seriously by the Government. “We should have a minister for women. A political role with teeth."

Many of us are familiar with Vicky's story and those of the other victims of the ever-unfolding cervical check scandal. Tragically, 21 of the 221 women affected by the cervical check controversy are now dead. However cervical services are not the only area in Ireland where women's lives and bodies are not being respected or valued by the State.

Until very recently in Ireland, women who were pregnant did not need to be asked for their consent for medical procedures that concerned the health of their baby (according to the last HSE National Consent Policy). Maternity Advocacy organisation AIMS Ireland documented many stories of pregnant women experiencing non-consensual touch or practices by healthcare providers.

AIMS advocates for a more respectful and women-centred approach to maternity services. Speaking about the current maternity service, AIMS Ireland Chair Kyrsia says:

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“To think that our Maternity System considers women to be at the centre of maternity care is laughable. They most certainly are not and never have been in Ireland.

"Unless they birth at home, women are 'processed' through the maternity services; the vast majority come out alive, most just accept their experience and move on, but some are profoundly wounded, emotionally and physically, and until this week they have been utterly ignored.”

Elsewhere, in the workplace the gender pay gap stands at around 14percent, though in some occupations it is far greater. Women working in research and development experience a gender pay gap of up to 30percent difference from their male colleagues. On top of this, women are expected to do more 'unpaid work' than men. A recent study found that 45percent of women provide unpaid care for others on a daily basis, compared to 29percent of men.

The study also revealed that women spent an average of 19.7 hours per week on housework, while men spent an average of 9.2 hours per week on the same. On average, women in Ireland are doing almost twice as much unpaid work like caring and housework than Irish men are, while many in paid employment are earning significantly less than their male colleagues.

It's all painting a rather bleak picture of life for Irish women, and these examples are just the tip of a massive inequality iceberg.

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Vicky Phelan's call for a Minister of Women would no doubt go some way towards highlighting the issues facing women today, but my concern is that many of the problems are systemic, and require a huge overhaul of systems, organisations and society.

I'm reminded of a former workplace: it had lovely policies on diversity and equality, even a person in that dedicated role. However, the people in charge had no interest in implementing the policies or affording anything more than lip service to the D&E Officer.

Our current government is made up of 123 male TDs and 35 women TDs, so technically we have 35 women "at the table" already. But if the women already in power aren't delivering for the women of Ireland it poses the question, how do we get people - regardless of gender - to care about the inequality that exists in our society?

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My concern is that a Minister for Women might be another of those box-ticking exercises to make it look like the people in charge are doing something.

What we really need is people who care to be in charge.  I  would rather a man who understands the issues and is passionate about changing things to be running the show, than a woman who can't see beyond her own privilege and has no interest in upsetting the status quo.

You can join Vicky Phelan for live talks, supported by Her, about her remarkable story in Cork and Limerick this month. Tickets are €20 and include a copy of her memoir, Overcoming.