Ireland’s poor treatment of women is a cross-border problem requiring cross-border solutions
14th January 2021
We are still only in the first weeks of 2021, but we have already seen enough to put anyone off being a woman in Ireland. In the Republic, on the 12th January the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation report was published, which included the findings that many women were ‘taunted’ when giving birth because of their unmarried status, and the shocking fact that 9,000 children, or 1 in 7, died in the 18 institutions which were investigated. North of the border, on the 5th January, Amnesty International UK called out the failure of the NI health services to adequately fund abortion services which have been legal there since early last year. This came after the news that the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust had been forced to stop referrals to their early medical abortion services due to the failure of the Department of Health to commission and fund abortion services. In that same week, the BBC reported that more than 700 women in Northern Ireland were being contacted regarding contraceptive implants which may have been incorrectly inserted.
The coronavirus pandemic, while also creating a public health crisis like nothing we have ever seen, has unearthed so many underlying issues in our society. One of the most important and perhaps most unpredictable aspects was the overwhelming need for cross-border co-operation. This conversation came to the fore in recent years due to a deadly virus which does not recognise national borders, and through Brexit debates which stressed the chaos of a hard border in Ireland. Irish feminists are one group of many, for whom operating across the border is nothing new. In the second half of the 20th century, as second- wave feminism was gaining momentum across the world, Irish women were utilising the fact that they could move, with relative ease, between two different states with varying degrees of rights for women. In 1971, when contraception was illegal in the south but mostly legal in the North of Ireland, activists from Belfast carried large amounts of contraception on a so-called ‘contraception train’ to Dublin,to protest this inequity in women’s rights across the island. Almost 50 years later, after the referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Irish constitution passed overwhelmingly, hundreds of activists crossed the border to march with activists from the North, who were still fighting for abortion access.
“The liberation of women in Ireland has always been a 32 county issue, and will continue to require cross-border momentum and cooperation.”
While abortion is now, theoretically, available across the entire island, similar obstacles to access are cropping up on both sides of the border. Geographical disparity of availability, individual discrepancies in services offered, as well as deliberate misinformation and intimidation from anti-abortion activists; are issues faced by women across the island in their pursuit of abortion services. The treatment of women, and the fights for gender equality across Ireland, are often mirrored on either side of the border. While the shocking content of the Mother and Baby Homes report was published in the Republic this week, Amnesty International UK, alongside survivors, have renewed their calls for a similar inquiry into the conditions in mother and baby homes within Northern Ireland, calls which have been ignored by Stormont since 2013. While it does not appear to be a failure on the same scale, the story about the contraceptive implants in NI has the worrying undertones of the 2018 CervicalCheck cancer scandal, in which over 100 women were not informed of the revised results of their smear tests, 17 of which had died before the scandal broke.
In that same year, two court cases on either side of the border stirred up huge waves of protest across the country. In March 2018, the four men involved in the Ulster Rugby rape trial were found not guilty by the courts in Belfast, and ‘I Believe Her’ protests sprung up on social media and across the country. Many expressed outrage both at the sexist attitudes reflected in the men’s Whatsapp conversations, and the treatment of the young woman in the court, who faced days of cross-examination, with her bloodied underwear held up as evidence. While people were still reeling from the outcome of the Belfast trial, in November 2018, a similar case in Cork reignited conversation and protest across Ireland. The similarities did not go unnoticed, a man accused of raping a 17 year old girl was found not guilty, and again the young woman’s underwear was shown in court, in an attempt to show her consent.
The list could go on forever, the names of women who have been failed by both governments live on in many of our memories. Savita Halappanavar, Dara Quigley, Vicky Phelan, Sarah Ewart, Ann Lovett, and many more. While the idea of getting on a bus to attend a protest is a distant memory, we know that social media is and always will be a great tool for protest, particularly across borders. The liberation of women in Ireland has always been a 32 county issue, and will continue to require cross-border momentum and cooperation.
Featured photo by Auguste Blanqui