What are women asking their political candidates?

Election fever is reaching pandemic levels with every news broadcast, radio talk show and newspaper front page suddenly dominated by all the latest candidacy announcements, policy promises and campaign gaffs. For those of us concerned with challenging gender inequality and agitating for policy and legislation that properly addresses this, we have to think about how our votes might be best used. I think there’s no time like election time to raise these kind of issues with politicians. For one thing, they’re so reliant on the dominance of the national question in shaping people’s voting preferences that asking them about how they intend to create a more equal society for women is something of a paradigmatic anomaly. Lobby your MP about the childcare strategy or violence against women while they’re sitting comfortably in office and you may struggle to grab their attention. But if enough people kept canvassers chatting on doorsteps about how their party aims to address the gender pay gap or help support immigrant women out of violent relationships and they may begin to realise the burden of responsibility they carry.

I’m doing a wee turn tomorrow on Radio Ulster’s ‘Seven Days’ current affairs show and one of the questions each panelist has to talk about is our own thoughts on what potential MPs should be focusing on. So for me, the most important issues in the election will be social policy issues. Northern Ireland is already lagging behind the rest of the UK as a socially conservative society with political leaders who perpetuate that on all sides. Even those who profess left-leaning or socialist values are woefully apathetic when it comes to acting on social justice. My conern is that as the journey of devolution unfolds we will fall further and further behind. If a political candidate turned up on my doorstep I would be asking them how they intend to promote progressive social policy and legislation that effectively addresses inequality and seeks to support and protect the vulnerable in our society. For example, we have a childcare strategy that could make a huge difference to alleviating poverty for thousands of families by allowing parents to return to the workplace but it’s sitting with the executive going nowhere as there is so little commitment from the main parties to make it a priority. The 5 year old gender equality strategy has only just produced action plans in recent months with no measurable outcomes having been achieved yet. The Violence Against Women Strategy announced this year by the Home Office has no Northern Irish counterpart in the pipeline – our only policy on gender-based violence fails to acknowledge this as an issue that disproportionately affects women because of a distorted, overly ‘PC’ misinterpretation of Section 75. The recently passed Equality Act does not extend to Northern Ireland either which means (among other things) that companies here are exempt from the requirement to publish the disparities of pay between men and women in their organisations. How can we begin to tackle the gender pay gap if it’s allowed to be kept a secret? And I have to draw attention to the fact that the most obvious example of Northern Ireland being left behind is the refusal of the politicians here to engage in any debate about the Abortion Act. The first question I would be asking candidates is whether or not they intend to continue ignoring the fact that many people here want to see reproductive rights extended to Northern Irish women. Simply put, we need representatives that will listen to their constituents needs and give voice to them in Westminster rather than constantly holding us hostage to their own interests or socially conservative agendas.

So what would you ask? And if you already know the answer to that question then consider how you will ask it. We have almost a month before they go back to not giving a shit so use that time well. Find out who all the candidates are, send them an email or ring the constituency office. Better still, call in for a chat or invite them over for a cup of tea. And please please let me know how you get on.

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