[Dublin, 3 March 2017, contribution by Denise Roche, National Women’s Council of Ireland]. In February this year the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), along with a strong civil society contingent attended the examination of Ireland under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Often described as an international ‘Bill of Rights’ for women, it was adopted and ratified by Ireland in 1985, thereby, committing the State to taking concrete steps to improve the status of women in Irish society by promoting laws, policies and attitudes that best serve to ensure women are guaranteed the same rights as men. Compliance with CEDAW is overseen by a treaty body called the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women which comprises a group of 23 gender equality experts, elected by State parties to CEDAW. It had been over a decade since Ireland was last examined.
During the examination time is set aside to enable NGOs to formally address the Committee, thereby facilitating a platform of public engagement and an opportunity to briefly highlight issues articulated at length in the written submissions. Oral interventions were concise with 15 minutes allocated to the Irish NGO delegation to address the Committee (the oral statement of the NWCI can be accessed here). An interesting aspect of the civil society engagement with the Committee came the following day at the informal lunch meeting. This is a special time that the Committee sets aside especially for NGOs. However, given time constraints, the diversity of participants and issues requiring representation, it was agreed amongst the NGOs to prioritise key area of common interest at the beginning of the session:
- Austerity and the need for gender proofing;
- Need to introduce oversight and monitoring frameworks with targets and performance indicators with accountability and ownership in respect of implementation plans;
- Abortion and bodily integrity; and
- The lack of disaggregated data and the need to facilitate data protection.
Following the delivery of these short statements a questions and answer session took place that was moderated by NWCI. Despite the large volume of information that the Committee was fielding (see submissions by NGOs here), it was clear that they were well versed in the issues. Areas that received attention included the impact of austerity on women, how the new public sector duty worked, reproductive rights including maternity services, as well as issues that governed lone parenting, rural women, Travellers, victims of trafficking and sex workers.
- NWCI Director Orla O Connor
The next day the Irish State was examined by the Committee. In the absence of Tánaiste Francis Fitzgerald, Ambassador Patricia O’Brien, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations Office at Geneva addressed the Committee. In the ensuing discussion, the Committee Experts urged Ireland to include specific gender equality language in the Constitution, and to amend the out-dated provision related to the role of women in the home which they felt perpetuated discrimination on the basis of gender; thereby reiterating the recommendations made almost a decade before. They also inquired extensively about the work of the Citizen’s Assembly, (established in 2016, it is a body comprising of a chairperson and 99 citizens tasked with reviewing and formulating recommendations to Parliament on Ireland’s current laws governing abortion), and queried what the Government proposed to do once the Assembly presented their report in April 2017.
The State however refused to be drawn on the matter stating that it awaited the recommendations from the Citizen’s Assembly and their consideration by a special Oireachtas Committee (Committee of Parliament). The Committee also focused heavily on the forthcoming recognition of Traveller ethnicity, with the State confirming that it was hugely symbolic for the Traveller community. The State was further scrutinised in respect of Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, and the practice of symphysiotomy; with the tone of the Committee’s comments echoing previous conclusions by other UN bodies. Experts also commented that there seemed to be a lack of understanding by state officials on what domestic violence actually was, and more needed to be done in terms of training, awareness-raising, and data collection mechanisms. Other matters of significance included the worrying increase in the number of women being sent to prison, whether the quota system could be extended to local elections, what the State was doing to increase women’s participating in decision making, the gaps in sexual education, as well as the limited availability of civil legal aid.
Following the conclusion of the examination, the next step is for the CEDAW Committee to issue its Concluding Observations. These are expected to include successful steps that have been taken to achieve gender equality, as well as identifying the most critical measures that need to be taken in the future to implement the Convention. These Observations are very important resources for gender equality work as they provide authoritative country specific guidance about what CEDAW requires, and in that respect act as a valuable advocacy tool. What will be different about the Concluding Observations this time is that the Committee will be highlighting two priority issues that they expect the Irish Government to report back on in two years’ time. It is expected that the Committee will publish their Observations in early March.
NWCI recognise that significant positive advancements have occurred for women’s equality but we also have witnessed their fragility which can be eroded by fiscal choices. Indeed there remain persistent structural inequalities for women in Ireland; an issue of considerable concern is the lack of comprehensive disaggregated data pertaining to a range of areas where women’s rights are engaged, alongside a lack of urgency, prioritisation and resources for key areas such as access to abortion, violence against women, childcare and women’s economic independence.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock to recognising women’s equality is our siloed approach to policy development. Instead of pursuing singular policies to cover some of the inequality gaps, what we should be doing is implementing a holistic plan to make every effort to consider women’s equality in policy development. We hope the forthcoming National Women’s Strategy and Action Plan 2017-2020 will be a positive step in that direction. NWCI believe that 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.
CEDAW is important for women’s rights in Ireland, and NWCI expects that the Irish Government will be held to account, and placed under international pressure to accelerate the pace of change for women’s equality.
The combined sixth and seventh periodic reports of Ireland submitted under the simplified reporting procedure can be read here: CEDAW/C/IRL/6-7.
By Denise Roche, 3 March 2017