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Set in Stone

29/03/2024

Galway, 13th March
On the evening of International Women’s day, we had a Reclaim the night march in Galway, in the West of Ireland. We were marching through the city to protest against the high levels of violence against women and gender minorities. It was around 7 pm, it was just getting dark and there were men at the side of the streets, outside the bars, outside the shops, who, for some reason, thought it was ok to shout at us: “Things have never been better for you!” Basically, just be happy with what you have now and settle.

The very next day, we learned that the proposal to delete the reference to the role of women “within the home” from the Irish constitution had been rejected by the population.

On the 8th of March, the government organised two referendums to change the constitution and the status given to women. The first proposal was to amend article 41 which says that the concept of family is based on marriage. This article is also relevant to women’s rights as it does not recognize single parent families as having the same protection as those where the couple are married. The second one was to delete article 41.2 and its references to women’s life “within the home” and mothers’ “duties in the home” and instead to insert article 42B that would recognise “the provision of care, by members of a family to one another”.

With my university Feminist Society and the National Women’s council, I took part in the Yes-Yes campaign for both referendums. At the start, we were quite confident that it would be a yes-yes, we were just wondering how much of a yes-yes it was going to be. Because if we wanted to make it influential and show this government and the next that women’s and carers’ rights are important to voters, it had to be a strong yes.

So when the results came out, it was a shock at first. For the first ballot: 67% voted “no”, for the second ballot: 73% voted “no”, and turnout was 44%.

Then when I heard people speaking out about why they voted no, it was clear that it was not really about the issue at stake, it was about the lack of clarity, how it was handled, how it was put forward and what the wording was. There was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding as to what we were actually removing from, and inserting into, our constitution.

Personally, I saw these referendums as the continuation of the recent evolution of our constitution. In the last five years, we have had the 34th amendment legalising same-sex marriage and the 36th amendment legalising abortion, each time after a referendum with a turnout superior to 60%. People were enthusiastic about it! When we voted to legalise abortion, there was real public momentum because it was about rectifying a situation that was endangering women’s lives.

At the moment I don’t think there’s a huge amount of public momentum to get rid of article 41.2. It’s seen as a symbolic provision that doesn’t really affect people. It was the role of the government to convince the people of why it’s important and that was something they failed to do. Our Taoiseach, our Prime Minister, has, in fact, accepted responsibility for that.

Yet, I think you just have to look into the history of Ireland and women’s rights to understand why it is important. The first constitution of 1922 granted equal rights to women on different levels, but then it started to go downhill from there.

For example, the current constitution which was written in 1937 and mentioned “woman’s place in the home” also banned divorce. Contraception was also illegal from 1935. And there was a lot of institutional abuse; there were Mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries for women who had babies outside of wedlock until the 1990’s…

From 1924, there was also a marriage bar: women working in the public service had to give up their jobs once they got married. And we had this up until 1973, which means that there are still people alive today who didn’t have any kind of income during those years, except for their husband’s income, and now they don’t have their own pension (other than the state pension). So it really is still having an effect today. There was a strong link between the catholic church and the State which created the context that we are still getting over and trying to address today.

For me, the fact that our constitution still says that a woman’s place is in the home, tarnishes everything that we’ve fought for over the past few years. In its current form, article 41.2 does not protect, or provide women with the choice to stay at home because it’s not backed up with any significant legislation to make this economically viable.

People say “yes, but this text was written in 1937, the context was different”, but that’s precisely why it upsets me. Everyone agrees that the language is misogynistic and derogatory, so it shouldn’t be tolerated nowadays. And I find it quite embarrassing that it is.

That is something I learned during my law studies: you should never settle. You should never say the past is in the past. And if we believe that the constitution is the document that codifies our values, then it should reflect the values of a progressive and inclusive society, which Ireland has slowly but surely been moving towards over recent years.

Róisín

Róisín is the president of the NUI Galway Feminist Society where she studies BCL law and human rights. Over the past few weeks, she campaigned in favour of an amendment of the 87-year-old Irish Constitution to get rid of the references to the role of “women within the home”. That proposal was rejected during a referendum on the 8th March, but Róisín has not changed her mind: the text should be updated.

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