‘When we ignore the experiences of women, we do so at an enormous cost’ – The link between care and gender inequality

Photo: Kate Brayden

Altering Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution is a crucial opportunity for women, according to the National Women’s Council of Ireland. The City.ie reporter Kate Brayden attended the organisation’s latest consultation on the link between domestic caregiving and discrimination, namely the gender pay gap.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland held a consultation in preparation for the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality just days before the General Election — with care, economic inequality and leadership proving the dominant themes in the discussion.

Around 50 members of the NWCI were present at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, including migrant women, people with disabilities and representatives from the Traveller community.

Sarah Benson and Orla O’Connor, chairperson and director of NWCI respectively, both spoke about the changes that are needed in Bunreacht na hÉireann – which was drafted in 1937.

Article 41.2.1 states: “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.”

Article 41.2.2 states: “The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home. ”

In 2015, the Constitutional Convention was asked if Articles 41.2.1 and 2 should be removed from the Irish Constitution.

According to the NWCI, Article 41.2 is an opportunity to alter the definition of women in Irish society, as well as to revolutionise how care is valued in our society.

At the 2015 Constitutional Convention, 88 percent of Citizens’ Assembly members favoured deletion of both clauses, but 98 percent stated that they should be replaced by a gender-sensitive text to include other carers in the home. Almost two-thirds said the replacement clause should also include carers outside the home. They also held that carers should not be forced to work outside the home due to economic necessity.

The need to recognise the power of care in fulfilling essential economic and social functions was stressed by Sarah Benson in her opening remarks of the day. Legislating for a comprehensive, affordable and accessible care infrastructure, supporting people at all stages of the life cycle, is the primary goal, she said.

“From our consultations, while there’s no argument about the sexist language of Article 41.2, there are a lot more complex issues which emerge which we felt warranted greater consideration,” Benson said.

“The discussions around Article 41.2 move quickly to those very complex choices and challenges which many of us face every day relating to our understanding of family and home, the roles of women and men, of economic support for parents, work-life balance and the contribution of care and carers.”

Members highlighted the need to focus on adequate provisions of support for carers and lone-parent families, as well as the goal of increasing investment in early years to one percent of GDP. 

Developing a model of funding the care sector that ensures proper wages for the workforce, a quality service for children and affordable fees was an added goal for the proposed referendum that would be necessary to change the Constitution, as well as a statutory right for a broad spectrum of paid maternity, paternity, parental leave and carers leave. 

The NWCI discussed the topic of universal pensions, considering the disruptions which occur once a care provider or parent must leave their original employment. 

A right to home care and personal assistance for older people and those with disabilities was an added point, with Benson stressing that care work “is essential to women’s equality and the common good” and that men must increase participation in order to balance the workload of care  in Irish society:

“One of the key challenges, is while there has been significant increase in women’s participation in the labour market, this has not been balanced out by a corresponding increase in the contribution of men to care work. Nor has there been an adequate state response to recognition of and investment in care work.”

Women continue to carry out significantly higher amounts of unpaid work and care work. About 98% of those looking after the home or family in 2016 were women, according to Census data, and women also complete an average of 20 hours of weekly housework, compared to seven hours of domestic chores by men. 

The situation is even more dire for lone-parent families. Almost 60% of lone parents  cannot afford to access childcare services, which is three times the rate of two-parent families. 

Childcare costs in Ireland are the highest in the OECD for lone parents, recent statistics from Saint Vincent de Paul revealed, and 33.5% of lone parent families, the vast majority of which are headed by women, are at risk of poverty.

“Article 41.2 includes a definition of family which does not reflect the reality of families in Ireland, nor the diversity of family life. It presumes a male breadwinner, a two-parent household where the woman stays at home, and it does not take LGBTQ+ families into account,” Benson added. 

“We know that gender equality cannot be tackled without including economic inequality and poverty.”

Sustained investment in public services and social infrastructure is crucial to mitigating the historical ongoing economic inequality, which includes the gender pay gap (currently standing at 14%).

Roughly 60 to 65% of minimum wage workers are women. Addressing low pay by legislating to implement a Living Wage, benchmarking social welfare payments to a Minimum Essential Standard of Living and ensuring shared public resources are three key points of NWCI’s consultation proposal.

“CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) has repeatedly criticised Ireland’s retention of the article in its current form,” explains Orla O’Connor.

Mother caring for baby. Photo: Unsplash

“They expressed concern at the persistence of stereotypical views, social roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and in society at large.”

The issue of leadership was mentioned numerous times throughout the consultation. To improve the leadership position of women, suggestions included which suggested increased gender quotas, a gender balance on all non-state Irish company boards and an entitlement to maternity/adoptive leave for women county councillors and women TDs. 

“The nature of paid versus unpaid work has changed. Women need support to move in and out of paid work at different points in the life cycle,” O’Connor stated. 

“Women are often caught between childcare, elder care and insufficient state support. The issue is impacting women at a far greater rate than men.”

Orla O’Connor made sure to add that the NWCI hope to hold a specific and separate Citizen’s Assembly on the epidemic of violence against women.

“We believe that this needs a deliberate, singular process if it’s to achieve real, actionable and deliverable outcomes, which are absolutely needed.”

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