Archive for the 'Women in Politics' Category

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.


Holiday catch up. Part 1…

Happy New Year equality lovers!

I took a bit of a break from blogging over the Festive period for some total R&R and resolved to think only as hard as was required to maintain a quiet existence between my sofa, the park and the warm interiors of the homes of friends and family. However, as every woman will know, even the simplest of existences is gendered thanks to the pervasive sexism that has infected everything we see and do. So despite my best efforts to be oblivious here are some things that happened over Christmas that made me think like a feminist (Part 1 of 3):

  1. Iris Robinson announced she is quitting politics due to her struggle with mental illness.

I found this story really provoked mixed feelings in me when it broke on 29th December. Here is a woman who has caused untold damage to the cause of equality for LGBTQ people in Northern Ireland by ignorantly reinforcing the bigotry that makes Northern Ireland a difficult and dangerous place for them to call ‘home’. The arrogance in her misappropriation of Christian teaching is so disgusting as to make me wish I’d never been associated with the same faith she espouses and in all the mess of Northern Irish politics I don’t think anything has ever made me as angry as this single statement:

“There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”

So there has to be a ‘but’, right? Well, it’s not easy to find the humanity in a woman who has become so demonised over the past year as to have earned the nickname “Wicked Witch of the North” and be voted Bigot of the Year by Stonewall. But for me it’s right there in her honesty about her experience of depression. My work has one foot in the mental health field and I know the courage it takes to admit even to yourself that your mental and emotional well-being is not entirely within your own control. I can’t help but give props to anybody who sets such a positive example to the millions who suffer in silence. So while in one breath I might utter a steely “good riddance”, in the next I have to feel compassion for her as a woman struggling to find the contentment and balance she needs. AND with both Iris and Carmel stepping out of the political arena it leaves the urgent question of where are the younger women coming through to take their places? When female representation in the assembly already stood at only 14 out of 108 (having fallen from the 18 elected in 2007) losing 2 in such a short space of time is a hefty blow. 11% representation folks. That is simply terrifying.

Also, I have 2 copies of her autobiography if anyone wants to borrow one. Faith Mission bargains.

Congratulations Dawn Purvis!

After yesterday’s slightly dark look at the failure of our devolved government to have half a clue about pretty much anything that matters, especially that which matters to women, it only seems right that I acknowledge one particular winner at the Slugger Awards last night.

Dawn Purvis scooped MLA of the year, nominated by Slugger readers and named victorious by a panel of journos, bloggers and general PR-y type people. I’m delighted she not only won but also received the biggest cheer of the night from the assembled crowd in the Black Box. As one of her East Belfast constituents it’s always a source of pride to be represented by someone who doesn’t play the sectarian game and has a genuine desire to do the best with what we’ve got and try to build a vision for a peaceful and progressive Northern Ireland. Importantly for women, she is one of the most openly feminist MLAs and has risked her support base, her seat and even her party leadership to advocate for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

In Dawn we have a female representative who believes in women and understands that equality has to be fought for. At the same time she also understands the nuances of the NI political arena, tries not to alienate those who disagree but stands up for what she believes when a principle is on the line. When she spoke to defend the party’s position on reproductive rights after it was challenged in a debate at the party conference in October, she gave a passionate defence of this policy as core to their priniciples of social justice and equality for all. I was almost bursting with pride and hope as party members voted with her.

Dawn is not the only reason to be cheerful when it comes to female representation. Anna Lo is the only other openly pro-choice MLA, again placing her passion for women’s rights above the temptation to not rock the boat. As our only MLA from an ethnic minority community she has overcome a double barrier to achieve the support of her constituents and have a voice for some of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland. Barbara de Bruin is an excellent advocate for women’s rights in Europe and as an MEP has used her role to help push forward the kind of social policy we seem to be a bit slow to wake up to over here. And I was gutted when I heard of Carmel Hanna‘s plans to leave the Assembly as she has been an inspiring female politician who, along with Anna, has been really active on the issues of sex trafficking and sexual violence that have plagued South Belfast in recent years.

So there you have it. Those women are out there representing us. They need us to engage with them, to speak up when decisions affects us, to hold them to account. to congratulate them when they do us proud. And maybe eventually, some more of us will join them…

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.

Women in the news: an eventful day

Listening to the news today, I am struck by how many stories are about women. Some are cause for great celebration, others are heart-breaking. The fact that there are such an unusually high number made me want to post a quick overview, by way of showing the breadth, complexity and diversity of women’s experiences. In a country where men and their actions tend to dominate the news I wanted to make note of a day where that is not the case.

Starting on a celebratory note, a joint campaign led by Eaves and Object lobbying the House of Lords to make it illegal for punters to purchase the services of exploited sex workers has proved successful. More info at the Demand Change Website


There are other important campaigns going on this week at Westminster that are worth knowing about. Amnesty International are leading a mass lobby to challenge the “No recourse to public funds” policy which means some women are not able to gain access to specialist services or a refuge should they become victims of violence. Read more at here.


Also, peers are currently considering another clause in the policing and crime bill, this time one which will change the lisencing conditions of lap dancing clubs, naming them as “sex encounter venues”. Object have been leading a lobbying campaign. More here.


If you’ve been listening to Radio Ulster today you can’t have missed the story about the Irish Supreme Court’s decision to allow Portmarnock golf club near Dublin to ban women. I was impressed by the impassioned arguments of the women commenting on it on said local radio station who effortlessly showed up the opposing commenters for the arrogant little boys that they were. More here.


I was upset to read about a horrific rape that took place at the weekend, when a 36 year old man held a 15 year old girl and committed at least 4 different sexual assaults against her. I feel for her as she faces the beginning of her fight for justice in a legal system which is not famous for it’s treatment of girls and women in her position. More from BBC here.


It is encouraging to see someone with a bit of power speak out about the failings of the police when it comes to properly investigating rape and taking women’s experiences seriously. The police ombudsman has recommended disciplinary action to be taken against 4 police officers in Derry for this horrendous fuck up.


The ongoing inquest into the deaths of a mother and her 9 year old daughter in Carryduff highlight failings on the part of the health trusts responsible for treating her and reminded me of the difficulties many women face in getting adequate mental health care here.

The great date rape swindle… The authorities in NI want women to know that if you get raped it’s cause you’re STOOPID.

So, beginning with a comment posted today by @estheraddley

so here’s one to start you off.
the daily hatemail. date rape drugs are a myth. young girls are to blame. the comments are a charm.

Now it wouldn’t be like the daily mail to spout hateful shite in order to boost their hits. They’ve already got the bleeding heart liberal community’s mass attention following last week’s debacle and so they really should exploit it. For that reason there’s not a whole lot of merit in pointing out why this article on the made-upness of date rape is complete nonsense with illusions of scientific grandeur because they interviewed someone with a DR in front of their name AS WELL AS being deeply offensive to anyone who has ever been the victim of this horrendous crime. But it is worth noting that we should be concerned about the kind of attitudes this article is connecting with in the wider public. I was looking for some real science on date rape drugs and came across this lovely sentence on wikipedia:

‘Many assailants use alcohol because their victims often willingly imbibe it, and can be encouraged to drink enough to lose inhibitions or consciousness.’

There’s something really weird about that statement for me because, call me crazy but I think losing inhibitions and losing consciousness belong on two different strata of experience. And yes, both could be self inflicted. But equally both could be carefully orchestrated and manipulated. Whatever way it happens, if someone has sex with you when you are unable to either resist strongly or give enthusiastic consent then that is rape. End of.

The article reminded me that I want to point you towards this blog post about how pertinent the issue of victim blaming is right here in Northern Ireland. Incidently, the post was written by @EKSwitaj and RT’d by @ShelbyKnox who lives in America. Great that it got noticed but strange that it went around the world and back before I was aware. Another reason why I thought we needed a platform to talk about these issues as they are played out on our own soil.

The concept that ‘Alcohol is the number one rape drug’ is becoming increasingly distorted so that women are made to feel that if they get drunk while out at a bar they are administering a rape drug to themselves. It’s ludicrous. It makes me see the importance of the straight talking attitude of Rape Crisis Scotland’s campaign “This is not an invitation to rape me”.

There’s still time to email Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety Michael McGimpsey and tell him that we want a proper rape prevention strategy that encourages women to keep themselves safe but doesn’t let rapists off the hook. I received a supportive email from Carmel Hanna who said she will table a question to the minister in the assembly and keep us updated.

In closing, I recently read the following quote in an interview with Katherine Rake, departing leader of the Fawcett Society. It sums up the alcohol dilemma very succinctly for me by noting that most violent crime involves alcohol but it is only in rape cases that this seems to discredit the experience of the victim:

“The rape debate seems to push her closest to fury. “So much of it focuses on alcohol,” she says, “and this question of whether a woman is culpable if she’s been drinking. I mean, most of the victims of GBH are drunk, but nobody’s ever suggested that there should be a lesser charge for defendants in those cases. As soon as you draw that parallel, you think, well, the argument surrounding rape is an absolute outrage.”

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