Why devolution is not delivering for women in Northern Ireland.

So it’s no major revelation that the political structures and practices we’ve endured since our first baby steps towards devolution, have given us governance that is at best laughable and at it’s worst dangerous. After a decade of struggling to breathe life into our local democracy, we have much to celebrate as the stability and progress we hoped for has been given space to grow. However, it is hard not to be frustrated by the inability of some to let go of the politics of national identity, points scoring and whatabouttery, or the simple lack of real political experience and knowledge of those who suddenly have responsibility for shaping the real components of society and appear to screw things up more than they get it right.

When it comes to the problem of gender equality I fear the prospects are particularly bleak. The political arena here has never been hospitable to women, from the structural shortcomings and the dominance of a discourse of nationalism (both versions) that squeezes out non-sectarian parties, to the disgraceful attitudes and actions of individuals such as Ian Paisley Junior who thought it was accetpable to ‘MOO’ at Monica McWilliams of the NI Women’s Coalition when she first spoke in the assembly. The experiment of the NIWC was inspiring, historic, imperfect and ultimately unsustainable. Women currently enjoy a tiny 13% of seats in the NI Assembly (REMINDER: we make up over 50% of the population!) and a number of those are so bound to the conservative/religious/sectarian ideologies of their parties that their ability to understand the needs of women in their constituencies can be a little faulty.

I recently interviewed a range of women working in the women’s sector and the corridors of power and my personal interpretation of some of the things I heard would be that women trying to achieve the vision of gender equality are caught in a frustrating limbo. On the one hand is the great achievement of power sharing and the possibilities it offers in allowing people in Northern Ireland a more meaningful experience of democratic governance. On the other is an experience of direct rule that contained knowledgeable, progressive and at times frightened civil servants and ministers who often responded favourably to the demands of the women’s lobby. What to do? A safe and fair political environment is the route to stability in our society but the teething stage may see more losses than gains. And can we guarantee this league of extraordinarily stubborn old gentlemen will ever be ready to make space for the needs of women? As one of my respondents suggested, we may need to wait until they’re all dead before we see real change.

So while the UK takes the need for abortion provision seriously with the 1967 Act, we languish under the provisions of a 15o year old law that ignores the hardship endured by women with limited choices in a crisis pregnancy. While the Department of Health convenes a ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ taskforce, recognising the issue as one of discrimination against women, we are stuck in a Section 75 mine field that tries to force this issue into a gender neutral corner and leaves the roots of the problem unchallenged.

I recently blogged about this archaic piece of victim blaming that the DHSSPS and PSNI’s Community Safety Unit tried to pass off as rape prevention. More recently I have noticed a decidedly more astute and on-the-money billboard, newspaper and TV campaign bearing the logo of the same department and reminding us that “Sexual violence and abuse are always wrong.” The ad refers to the recent updating of the Sexual Offences Act which has been long overdue and finally brings our legal provisions in line with the rest of the UK. In particular I’m glad to see a very clear definition of consent, making it clear that there is no excuse for forcing a sexual act on a person who is unwilling or unable to express their full agreement.

“A person consents if s/he agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”

Sexual Offences Order, Article 3.

Until now, if a defendant could prove they honestly believed consent had been given, however unreasonable that belief was, they would have been acquitted. The law now recognises the injustice in this approach. If someone is threatened with immediate violence, was drugged by their attacker so as to be incapable of making a decision about consent, or was unconscious or asleep, it is extremely unlikely that they have the freedom to consent. Again, the Order now sets down circumstances like these where the courts will start from the presumption that the victim did not consent.

This is good stuff people. And even better to see the thoughtfulness of the publicity campaign, including newspaper ads in the sports sections reminding their (mostly male) readers that “Nobody supports sexual violence and abuse.” There is a message with this campaign: this is wrong and we will make it harder for you to get away with it.

However, this campaign is not the product of a sudden change of heart from DHSSPS after our complaints about their previous ‘how not to get yourself raped’ debacle. Far from it. It follows legislative changes at Westminster level, facilitated here by NIO, a department less bound by our colloquial politics and more connected to the pace of change in British social politics. It would be my guess that Mr McGimpsey’s department managed to tag their branding on through their funding of the LifeLine helpline which is advertised in the ad as a source of support for victims. As I watch the tireless efforts of groups like Object and Fawcett whose members have made huge personal sacrifices in for their successful campaigns on rape legislation and lap dancing reforms in Britain, I am slightly daunted by the task that lies before all women in Northern Ireland who have aspirations to make a difference. The women’s lobby is already strong on issues like childcare, violence against women, education and training, but it has to broaden and grow in number if we are to stand a chance against the dogma of our current political discourse.


1 Response to “Why devolution is not delivering for women in Northern Ireland.”

  1. 1 Congratulations Dawn Purvis! « soisaystoher Trackback on November 25, 2009 at 7:02 pm

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