It is a sad fact of reality that women, despite making up 51% of the population, only hold less than 13% of seats in the Dáil, leaving Ireland ranking 59th out of 120 nations examined for parliamentary representation of women in 2006. Apologists for this pitiful situation will of course either a) blame the electorate or b) refer us to the gender index published by the World Economic Forum in November 2007.
This index gives Ireland a glowing report in the “political empowerment of women” category – eighth in the whole world in fact. Largely due to the number of Ministerial positions and female presidents there have been. What apologists may not be so quick to refer to is the fact that the World Economic Forum was unimpressed with only 22 out of 166 parliamentary seats being held by women (at the time the report was compiled). Ireland was then awarded 74th place out of the 128 countries examined.
Women are perpetually under-represented in Irish politics and in decision making structures. Every sphere of decision-making is dominated by men and the belief that real gender equality exists in this state is a myth. According to the Central Statistics Office, the employment rate for women last year was 60% compared with over 77% for men and women’s average income was only two-thirds of that of men’s. Taking into account adjustments for hours worked, women still only received 86% of men’s earnings. Ireland ranks 41st out of the world for gender pay equality. It hardly reflects a society that empowers women in general.
While it could be said that there has been painstakingly slow progress made in terms of Irish political representation for women it seems to have stalled at the 12 or 13%; the number of female seats in the Dáil was reduced in the last election. Female representation in Irish politics is less than that in the Nordic countries, Continental Europe, the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa. And although most of the barriers that prevented women from going down anything other than the house-wife route have now gone (contraceptives being illegal, the civil service ban on married women etc) female participation in politics and subsequent representation in government is shockingly low in international terms. The male domination of the legal, cultural and political institutions in Ireland is an indictment of Irish society. Female representation is clearly not a priority for the Irish Government and it is believed by many that now is the time to have real debate on the question of affirmative action for women in Irish politics. If it was high on the priority list, the gender quota discussion would have begun years ago.
In the run-up to the 2007 General Election women’s groups in Ireland and the National Women’s Council of Ireland called for the government to bring forward legislation that would ensure that there was “at least 40% of either sex in both houses of the Oireachtas”. Bertie Ahern in turn pledged to increase the numbers of women in the Dáil and work towards more female representation in Irish politics- he then appointed two women to cabinet positions after forming the new government. It is quite clear that women are not adequately represented in politics until there is at least a 35-40% female level of parliamentary representation.
A prime example of this is the lack of government action regarding cervical cancer. 180 women are diagnosed with this every year in this state. It is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which 80% of Irish women come into contact with at some point in their lives. 73 women will die from this in 2008. There is a HPV vaccine that is freely available for girls from the age of 12 in many countries alongside cervical cancer screening programmes rolled-out nationwide. In Ireland we have no nationwide screening programme and if you want the vaccine you have to pay €600. There is no sign of this changing anytime soon. If HPV was something that could affect the male 87% of Dáil Eireann this may be a different story.
It is not so much that female members of parliament are absolutely guaranteed to legislate progressively on women’s issues (you only have to look at the Minister for Health to prove this), but a democratic parliament that is truly reflective of the society it is to represent should have a guaranteed proportional gender balance. Affirmative action is the way to achieve this, because let’s be realistic, there is no other option. This situation is not suddenly going to resolve itself and affirmative action is not to give preferential treatment to women, but to remove the negativity and discrimination that they face. It is plausible then, that with higher female representation in government, issues such as HPV vaccinations and equal pay standards may be addressed more efficiently. Affirmative action in politics, in conjunction with initiatives to resolve the primary causes of discrimination in society could work wonders, after all, inequality is not something that is inherent in society, it is caused by inherent inequalities in the current power structure which can be changed.
Affirmative action that would guarantee larger numbers of women in politics is something that most of the left-leaning parties agree on – at least, in theory. While Sinn Fein have explicitly stated their support for the NWCI call for affirmative action guaranteeing 40% of either gender in the Dáil, they say they would go further and ensure a 50/50 representation level. The Green Party have also stated “…the accepted critical mass of one or other gender of at least 30% is adhered to in all political and policy decision making bodies”. Labour have said that a critical mass of 30-40% needed for women to make an impact in politics, but have not gone so far as to put forward specific gender quota proposals. So, in reality there is a general agreement across the left and/or left leaning members of political parties on the need for gender quotas in other to make the political system more representative. This in itself is to be welcomed.
However, there are those who argue against the quotas. We are told that “women want to be elected on merit” –well of course they do and to think anything else would be plain ridiculous, but the fact is that women, regardless of their merit are very often overlooked because of their gender. Affirmative action gender quotas will not suddenly ensure that any “woman at all will do” but will take the discrimination against women out of the equation. Gender quotas will still allow for people to be chosen on merit. There are others who will argue that gender quotas are undemocratic. This would then imply that the current system in place is democratic and truly representative of society. So, is it democratic when 47% of Dáil members are lower-to-middle professionals when only 15% of Irish society is? Arguably not and yet this does not present those who argue against gender quotas with any great difficulty. Is it democratic when people residing in a certain county are left without Dáil representation? Perhaps not, but it is things such as this that are an integral part of what needs to be publicly discussed, debated and perhaps changed in order to make “Irish democracy” – more democratic.
It is incredibly sad of course that we now have to seriously contemplate putting a clause on the statute books to ensure that 51% of the population of the state is adequately represented in the parliament of the state. Some may even say that it is shameful. Whatever it is though – it is badly needed. Cross-party dialogue and co-operation could seriously advance the equality agenda for women’s rights. Now is the time to start it.
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