Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Men in suits happy to keep Irish women in pyjamas

At the launch of the National Women's Strategy in 2007 were, from left, Mary Coughlan, Michael McDowell and Bertie Ahern. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien


OPINION: MAYBE THE Government should just abandon the National Women’s Strategy (NWS) and spend the small change it saves on the Pyjamas for Women Measure (PWM). Then it could implement the “Bord Snip” report in its full savage entirety and be done with all that old guff about equality once and for all, writes SUSAN McKAY 

Young women from the poorest estates in the country have been piloting the PWM for several years now, daywear and nightwear only distinguished by the application and removal of full make-up.

Comfortable, cheap and cheerful, pyjamas are ideal for taking children to school, going to the post office and the supermarket, picking up the prescription for the tranquillisers. Those who don’t have children may not rise at all, thus saving on all kinds of unnecessary expenses such as heating.

Women who wear pyjamas by day and by night are not ambitious. No one ever described smiling teddy bears on pastel brushed cotton as power dressing. They do not expect to have a say in running their community, let alone their country. This, the Government seems to have decided, is how it should be.

The PWM would also provide employment for thousands more women and girls in sweatshops in the southern hemisphere. Far better economic sense than all this expensive nonsense about gender specific development aid programmes.

Never mind that our President recently warned that recession was devastating for women in the world’s poorest places. She would say that, wouldn’t she? Didn’t she also complain that in her own country there were too few women making the big decisions?

The NWS was fine, in its time, back in boom time. In 2007, three upstanding men, a taoiseach, a tánaiste and a minister of state, spoke of their pride as they launched it, declaring that its implementation would “enable Ireland to become the shining light for equality over the next 10 years”. Irish women would “enjoy equality with men and . . . achieve their full potential, while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life”. The smiling men wore suits and ties and shiny shoes. It was two weeks before a general election.

It was a full 12 years since the government had signed up to the United Nations’ strategy to remove all obstacles preventing women from participating fully in public and private life. It had promised to develop a national plan. Better late than never. All departments of government were to take responsibility for removing barriers to equality for women, and were to report on progress to the minister of state within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland welcomed the NWS, but expressed disquiet that the amount of money allocated to it was rather small (0.01 per cent of GDP), that it would be hard to measure its effectiveness as there were no targets or timescales, and that its budget was liable to come under pressure in a department that had high-spending responsibilities including policing and prisons.

A year after the launch, in 2008, the Government cut the budget for gender equality in half and began reallocating the money. Almost all of the money that was supposed to be spent on projects proposed by women’s groups under the Equality for Women measure that year went instead on Garda overtime and other undeniably pressing requirements. The budget for a new Government agency to combat violence against women was cut by 20 per cent, before it had even had time to decide what it was going to do.

Since April this year, the Government has removed a further chunk of money which had been earmarked for equality, and has instructed the Department of Justice to hand over millions of euro it got from the European Social Fund, to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with no obligation attached that it be spent on measures for women.

In recent weeks, crumbs from the table were parcelled up and given to a small number of women’s groups – in some cases with the stipulation that none of the money was to be spent on childcare. You see, women make unreasonable demands. They want training and education and jobs and they want someone else to look after their children!

Funding for women has been cut in just about every Government department, as well as through the NWS. It’s the current difficult economic climate. It’s recession. We all have to take the pain, the men in suits and ties and shiny shoes keep explaining.

So it doesn’t really matter that 99 per cent of unpaid care workers in Ireland are women. That women earn on average 14 per cent less than men. That although girls do better than boys at school, the top jobs still go to men – just 4 per cent of Irish chief executives are women. That 23 per cent of women have incomes that put them at risk of poverty.

That 42 per cent of women experience sexual abuse or assault and one in 10 is raped.

That just 13 per cent of TDs and Senators are women. That five out of the six on the “Bord Snip” report team, and most of the members of the Commission on Taxation, are men. That women are 51 per cent of the population.

No, it doesn’t really matter at all.

Who cares what the UN says about us? Or the EU. The women in pyjamas will not trouble the men who run this country with demands or dreams or even hopes. Bring on the PWM. Fast-track it.

What more could Mná na hÉireann want?

Susan McKay is director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times