The massive growth in the number of women in the workforce in the past 25 years has contributed significantly to the success of the economy. In the past 20 years, the number of women in the workforce has grown by more than 212,000, reaching 448,000 in 1996. In 1997, more than 512,000, or four in every ten, people in employment were women. In the 25-44 year cohort of women, almost two thirds now work outside the home. In 1977, only 14 per cent of women in the workforce were married but, by 1996, married women accounted for 47 per cent of women workers. This change has resulted from a growing awareness of the need to reconcile family life and work opportunities and the State also has a duty to reconcile these competing demands,
The rearing, conditioning and education of children is vital to future generations and parents have a key role to play. The State should endeavour to facilitate them in every possible way. The introduction of this Bill will serve to increase the number of women in the workforce and will provide an opportunity for fathers to be involved in rearing their children.
Irish society has changed immensely in recent years. One in five children is born to a single mother. We must urgently examine and legislate for the role of the father in a changing society. The State does not facilitate single fathers who wish to fulfil their obligations and responsibilities as parents. Single parents, as of right, should be entitled to a relationship with their children. To date, the presumption in law has been that single fathers do not have such rights and must obtain the agreement of a child's mother to get them. The law facilitates the rights of single mothers to access and rear children but hinders the role of single fathers in fulfilling their rights and obligations. Custody or guardianship cannot be arranged without obtaining the agreement of a child's mother and the State does not facilitate single fathers in establishing guardianship or joint guardianship without the mother's agreement. If the mother's agreement is not forthcoming, the matter must be dealt with in the courts.
Under the law children of single parents are discriminated against in comparison with those of a married couple in regard to their relationships with their fathers. Their relationships have an inferior status in the eyes of the law and society in general. We must examine the role of the father in a changing society. It is important that children have knowledge of, and be exposed to the influence of, their fathers. Children of single parents are also entitled to the acquaintance and friendship of their fathers' families, their uncles, aunts and so on. The State should uphold such rights. While accepting we have made some progress in recognising children who are not born within marriage, including abolition of the concept of illegitimacy, we must nonetheless continue to recognise that families are very different today from what they were in the past. If we continue to promote the principle that parentage is, in effect, tied up with marriage, particularly in the case of fathers, we are not recognising the needs of children born to single parents and are not responding to the direction in which society is moving. We must reform our approach to ensure we do that and reflect the reality of life. It would be nice to think traditional family structures and supports could continue. Four out of five families still adhere to that model but the trend is changing; one in every four children currently born in County Louth is born to a single mother.
Traditionally, fathers wielded a great deal of control within families and mothers were, in effect, dependent on them. That has changed and in many circumstances, fathers are now dependent on mothers for access to their children. It is not acceptable for a mother to have the sole right to grant guardianship of her child to its father. At present, the mother's right is absolute. If a mother agrees to an unmarried father becoming a guardian, the procedure can be carried out very easily.
The role of the father is not sufficiently developed and recognised within Irish society. I am not happy with a society in which so many mothers are raising children on their own and in which children have no knowledge of their fathers, either because their fathers do not want to know them or are prevented from knowing them. Legislation must be drafted to address that. It takes two people to have a baby and it should take two people to rear it. The responsibilities and rights of fatherhood are not being addressed in regard to single parents and sufficient consideration is not being given to the significant changes which have occurred in our society. We must establish fathers' rights in a way which challenges them to fulfil their responsibilities. Deputy McGahon stated that too many single fathers do not face up to their responsibilities to support and have a relationship with their children. If we do not ensure such rights are established, we are simply enforcing a pattern which will not be good for society as a whole or for parents, be they married or single. It is in children's best interests, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary, to know their fathers and have relationships with them. The emphasis must be on what is in the best interests of the child or children, but we often lose sight of that. The overriding consideration in many marriage breakdowns seems to be what is convenient for the parents rather than what is in the best interests of the child or children. We cannot overemphasise or underestimate the importance of a father figure in a child's life. There is a void in the lives of children who do not have a father figure. As more than 80 per cent of primary teachers are female, many children who are reared by their mother do not have contact with a father figure even in school. Many children are being brought up with only their mother's influence in their lives. That will have consequences for them in later life and that matter should be addressed.
The report of the 1996 constitutional review group in considering the position of unmarried fathers pointed out that a natural father has no personal right to his child, which the State is bound to protect under Article 43 of the Constitution. It also pointed out that section 6(a) of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, as inserted in the Status of Children's Act, 1987, has been construed by the Supreme Court as giving an unmarried father a right to apply to court to be appointed guardian, as distinct from giving him the right to be a guardian, which could be annulled by the courts. A father should have the right to be the guardian of his child. That report also states that any criticism of the fact that a natural father does not have a constitutionally protected personal right in relation to his child can be readily undermined as regards a natural father who lives in a stable relationship with the natural mother or who has established a relationship with the child.
We must face the reality that 12,500 children were born to unmarried parents last year and 700 applications were made by unmarried fathers for guardianship of their children. We must seriously examine what is in our culture that determines the majority of fathers of children who are born outside marriage do not have a relationship with their children. We must consider how we should cope with that position to ensure that children of unmarried parents have as stable a relationship as possible with both parents.
One of the key aspects of a stable relationship is determined by whether one was influenced by one's mother and father. We must do everything to ensure that society recognises the strong role of a father in influencing the upbringing of his child, irrespective of whether he is married to the child's mother. We cannot turn back the clock to make society as it was 15 or 50 years ago. There were many difficulties with that society which are not relevant to this debate.
The trend of births outside marriage will continue to rise. The State must recognise that and ensure that children know their fathers, their values and ensure that they influence their children. A child should grow up to recognise that a father and mother have a role to play in his or her upbringing. The State must send a strong signal that co-operation between parents should be the norm. We must send a signal that the State recognises changes in society and that more than 20 per cent of children are born outside marriage. The State should signal that co-operation between both parents is expected, that it is there to facilitate such relationships and it expects fathers and mothers to be fully involved in rearing their children. There is no such thing as a one parent family. Every child has two parents and we must ensure that both are involved in a child's upbringing.