What do assembly candidates know about gender equality?

 On Wednesday 6th April, one of the first hustings of the election season took place in Queens’ Student Union. A panel of 5 political hopefuls faced questions on the subject of gender equality at an event organised by the QUB Feminist Society and supported by Belfast Feminist Network and Platform for Change. Basil McCrea, the UUP’s keenest bean was there, as were Conall McDevitt of the SDLP, Alliance’s Anna Lo, Sinn Fein’s Jennifer McCann and newbie Clare Bailey of the Green Party. It’s worth pointing out that the QUB FemSoc organisers did go to great lengths to try and entice the DUP to send along a representative but they eventually declined.

I must admit to having been pretty excited about this event, in a ‘political nerd’ way. In the plethora of overly sincere promises and idealistic policy commitments that are flung around at election time, I couldn’t wait to see what the parties best efforts on this subject, one particularly close to my heart, might be. Armed with my copy of the ‘Women’s Manifesto’, produced by the Women’s Ad Hoc Policy group, made up of a range of local women’s sector lobbyists/campaigners/activists, and of course with a healthy dose of righteous feminist anger, I had plenty of pressing questions to put to the panel. On arrival at the venue in Queen’s Students Union I knew instantly that my excitement was shared by those gathered, a large number of whom, I’m delighted to say, make up the growing ranks of Belfast Feminist Network, now in it’s second year and an increasingly thriving community of young women and men passionate about fighting sexism and gender inequality. Surely a great night’s challenge and debate was about to unfold…

Two hours later and the mood was significantly more flat. Somewhere in the middle of all that potential the purpose of the evening had gotten a little bit lost. As a few of us gathered to chat about it afterwards we were still in shock at how quickly the focus on gender equality had slipped away and were desperately trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Getting people to submit questions to the chair in advance probably would have made a difference, as would more assertiveness on the part of the chair who frustratingly seemed content to let the panel meander off-topic for extended periods. A larger number of questions and challenges from the floor should have been gathered in the middle section of the event and the mixture of vague, obsequious and idealistic waffle that came from the direction of the panel should have been held up to much closer scrutiny. There were definitely interesting points raised on a couple of questions, some of the highlights having been really well summarised in the BelFemNet Twitter feed coming live from the event. We heard Anna Lo reiterate her commitment to support the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act toNorthern Irelandand her belief that our current legislation on abortion is a disgrace. Claire Bailey also made a public statement of support for the extension of the Act, claiming that politicians should not have the right to restrict the choices of Northern Irish women seeking abortions. The other panellists gave their parties’ usual non-committal, safe answers about personal conscience and how there is much debate among party members on the subject. That’s nice to know…meanwhile 40 women a week have to get on a boat or a plane and go through a tremendously difficult experience, often without the support of their friends and family and with no medical aftercare in their own communities. But sure, you folks just keep on debating it!

We also heard a range of views on how to promote more gender equal representation in our political institutions. Conall McDevitt was the most clear on his commitment to this as a fundamental sign of a healthy democracy and emphasised the need for regional shortlists to be used. Anna Lo pointed out that more women representatives are needed across the assembly and executive as women have a right to representation not just on issues perceived to be ‘women’s issues’ but in all areas of decision-making. Jennifer McCann was also clear that parties have a responsibility to field women candidates in winnable seats and not just make tokenistic gestures. Basil McCrea made a somewhat ambiguous remark about women not being treated as ‘inferiors’ needing ‘special treatment’ and appeared to miss the point that men in powerful positions such as himself need to check their privilege and understand the prejudice in the system that helped them get where they are. I was personally irritated by the over-emphasis on childcare as the main barrier to women entering politics, as was one speaker from the floor who expressed anger at this automatic assumption that women are always primary carers for children. Only Claire Bailey properly addressed the fact that maybe parties need to examine their own ideologies and look at the sexism all women face when trying to step into a role that many still see as one most suitable to a man.

So that’s what was talked about. Now for what wasn’t talked about: What budget decisions they think are most important to minimise the hugely unequal impact the cuts are set to have on women? How they would enhance our equality legislation to make it harder for employers to hide unfair payment practices that perpetuate the gender pay gap? What commitment they would make to progressing the Childcare Strategy that has been treading water for far too long? How they would work to bring our approach to violence against women in line with international standards, promoting a comprehensive strategy that recognises all forms of violence against women as part of the oppression perpetuated by misogyny and the exploitation of women’s vulnerabilities? What they think of how rape is handled here, from the victim-blaming approach in public awareness raising and prevention campaigns favoured by the DHSSPS and PSNI, through to the low conviction rates and lack of support for victims? How would they suggest the relevant departments respond to the sex industry in Northern Ireland, the grooming and abuse of young people and the trafficking of women and girls from abroad, and what legislative approach they think best tackles the demand for this exploitative industry? Whether or not they are willing to speak up for much needed relationship and sexual health education for young people in the face of opposition from religious leaders with an unhealthy influence on our education system?

Huge credit is due the QUB Feminist Society for the work that went into organising this event and I’m also impressed that the candidates came along to show their interest in gender equality. I just hope that all of these outstanding questions will continue to be asked by all of us involved in this growing feminist movement to anyone with any power or influence at every given opportunity. We should be quizzing them on our doorsteps, dropping into constituency offices, emailing them, Tweeting, making appointments for a cup of tea and a nice friendly chat. If you have any interesting conversations with candidates between now and the election on any of these subjects, or if there are questions of your own that you think I’ve missed, please comment below.


1 Response to “What do assembly candidates know about gender equality?”

  1. 1 Gayle Matthews April 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    You made some very interesting points. If you or your readers would like another opportunity to ask those all too important questions of prospective candidates, you are very welcome to attend the Public and Commercial Services Unions hustings events detailed below:

    Wed 27 April 7-8pm City Hotel Derry, Queens Quay, Derry

    Thur 28 April 1-2pm Youth Action NI, 14 College Square North,

    Thurs 28 April 7-8pm Marine Court Hotel, 18-20 Quay Street, Bangor

    Kind regards

    Gayle Matthews

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