I do not know if it is comical but it says something that we are celebrating International Women's Day on 9 March, a day after International Women's Day. I cannot for the life of me understand why we did not have space for this yesterday, which was actually International Women's Day. I cannot wait to hear why that happened, why it was not a priority and why we got bumped up by a day. It says a lot about the situation for women in Ireland. I am laughing but it is quite serious in some ways. It goes beyond a joke, given there are so many issues facing women in Ireland.
It was a momentous day for me when I was elected to the council in 2019 as the first woman ever elected in my local area. Even though I was proud, I was also deeply embarrassed. When I go to secondary schools, I meet young women and I am always embarrassed to say that we never had a woman represent us in north Clare until 2019. If it was 1919, maybe I would be proud, but in 2019 it was amazing to see. It was a hard battle, it was quite a shock and it was not easy. It is shocking that we had never had a woman elected before.
That is partly because women do not always put themselves forward because, in the mainly male-dominated profession of politics, it can be quite intimidating. As I said to a group of young girls yesterday at the Irish Second-Level Students Union, they should never doubt that they are as capable as any of the men in politics because it is not as intimidating as people expect it to be. I was telling the young girls that all of them would be just as capable as anybody else who has ever been in the Seanad or the Dáil, and to please think about putting themselves forward and engaging. We cannot expect things to change for women unless women are willing to put themselves forward and we need to do a lot more about encouraging women to do so.
If the decisions on women's issues are made mainly by men, we are never going to solve the problem. I remember going through the public maternity services when I was pregnant. There were 80 women in a room with 40 chairs. We had all been told to be there at 2 p.m. to meet our consultant, who we never saw, and to have our uterine and blood samples checked in a pre-maternity check-up. I remember looking around and asking how this was happening. We are the givers of life and there would be no children without us, but there were 80 women with 40 chairs and we were all waiting for about three hours. It was insane. I swore to my unborn child that day that when he was sorted, I would run for election because I realised that until more women step up, why would men prioritise maternity services? That is no offence to men but they are not pregnant so they do not know what it is like.
What was also sad in some ways was that a lot of the women in the room were quite accepting that this was good enough, and it is not good enough. It is not good enough for women to be treated in that way. When one is demoralised during pregnancy, of course one is demoralised during the birth. Our breastfeeding rates are the lowest in Europe and that is partly why. We need to empower women to feel that they own their pregnancy, that they own their births, that they own their right to breastfeed and that the supports have to come into place. With the best will in the world of all the men in Ireland, until we have more women representing us at the decision tables, none of those issues are going to change. That is why we have had childcare issues and many other issues. Historically, it is mainly women who have been the primary carers. There are some great men doing great work around childcare but the majority are women, so until the women are at the decision-making table, none of that is going to change. That is a very important point.
Do not be intimidated. Every woman is just as capable as every man at being at a decision-making table, whether it is in politics, on health boards, as principals of schools or anywhere else. We have to really believe that we are every bit as good as men and put ourselves forward, even if it is intimidating. It is okay to feel the fear and do it anyway because one will not regret it. We are just as capable and that is a clear message that we have to remind ourselves of. I still have to remind myself that I can do this, that we have got this. When one is reared in a patriarchy, one is not always told that, so one has to constantly remind oneself that we are equal, we are as capable and we need to put our hands up and say “Yes”.
There is a mad statistic that, in general, men will apply for jobs they do not feel qualified for, but they will apply anyway, and women will only apply for jobs they are definitely at least qualified for, if not overqualified for.
That says much about how we see ourselves and how we are seen in society. I completely digressed on what I was going to say. I will focus briefly on rural women. A figure of 36.6% of the Irish female population live in rural areas. The National Women´s Council of Ireland 2021 study entitled, Paper on Women in Rural Communities: We Want to Live and Work Where We Are, was a real eye-opener. It identified an undervaluing of the contribution of women to rural communities. As far as I can see, the women do nearly everything where I come from. They organise everything and yet they are not the ones in charge and are not recognised. They do much of the work but they are so busy working, they do not put their hands up and take photographs to get recognised for the work.
Rural women are more likely to be poor, to parent alone, to be the main provider of unpaid care work, to work in precarious employment, to earn low wages and to be at risk of domestic or sexual abuse. That is just a fact. Rural women’s experiences and their role and contribution to families, communities and businesses, including on farms, often goes unacknowledged and unrecognised in the social protection system and rural development strategies. The most marginalised are disabled women, Traveller and Roma women, lone parents and migrant women.
According to the 2016 census, 18% of rural Ireland does not have a broadband connection although the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, has definitely moved things along to improve that slightly. Some 139 Garda stations and 500 post offices have closed and rural banking is all but gone. These are all services in which mainly women are running the show. It looks like a man is in charge but I discovered that women are actually the main organisers. That kind of sounds quite sexist but that is based on facts on statistics.
Coming from somebody who is herself a lone parent, I want to highlight a couple of things around lone parents. Those in receipt of the one-parent family payment have the highest rate of consistent poverty among all social welfare recipients. The Poverty and Social Inclusion: The Case for Rural Ireland report states:
The reasons behind poverty are complex but one of the main reasons behind lone parent poverty is that welfare to work supports were designed for unemployed people and simply extended to lone parents without any adaptation to take account of the specific needs of one parent families.
Almost 60% of lone parents could not afford to access childcare services, which is three times the rate of two-parent families.
I also acknowledge that since we have come into government, many great things have happened in the last year and a half. I said at the beginning that if anybody can challenge these issues, it will be the Ministers, Deputies McEntee and O'Gorman. They have done great work in developing the third national strategy to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, outlined some great work that has been done on childcare improvements.
My colleagues in the Seanad, Senators Fitzpatrick, McGreehan and Chambers, have done great work on new legislation on the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Stalking) Bill 2021. Basically, it will be illegal to stalk people. I have personally been stalked and there was nowhere I could go. This is, therefore, a hugely important issue.
The first day I walked into the Seanad, we had 40% women, which is great. It just feels different. I did not realise how different it would feel because I came from a county council where it was nearly all men. It is really important that we believe in ourselves on International Women's Day. We need to engage with men on these issues. There is no point in going into silos and having women preaching to the converted. We need to spread the word and engage with all the good men of Ireland. With their help, we can progress to a society in which we will be proud to tell our young women to go forth and they will be treated as equals.