Denmark passes landmark consent-based rape laws

By Lisbeth Latham.

Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance or Enhedslisten (United List) announced on July 14 that the governing Social Democrats and Social Liberals parties in Denmark’s Parliament had agreed to pass consent-based rape laws. This follows an agreement to support the new laws made by the Conservatives and Liberal parties in March. The announcement marks a significant and further step in shifting Scandinavian rape laws away from being based on violence and coercion and towards questions of consent.

As the Red Green Alliance statement said: “sex without consent isn’t sex”.

The Red Green Alliance had unsuccessfully sought to change Denmark’s legislation in November 2018, when the then governing Conservatives, Liberals and Liberal Alliance parties had refused to back the change supported by all of Denmark’s left and centre-left parties. The changes will define sex without explicit consent as rape. In doing so Denmark becomes just the 10th EU country to pass such legislation, and the second Scandinavian country to do so after Sweden introduced similar laws in 2018.

The Local pointed out on March 12 that the new laws would shift the burden of proof onto alleged perpetrators to demonstrate that consent had been given and that the survivor was in a state to give consent. At present, survivors are required to demonstrate that the accused is proved to have had sex with somebody who tried to, or was unable to, stop the act.

The changes are expected to significantly lift the potential for rape convictions and make complaint processes easier for survivors.

While changing the legal framework regarding is important in challenging sexual violence it’s insufficient and much work still needs to be done around attitudes towards sexual activity which see access to another person’s body as a right.

Lisbeth Latham is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. The poster text above reads “A victory for Unity List Consent-based rape legislation – A step in the right direction”

Activists demand ‘no more delays’ in decriminalising abortion in North

By Emma Campbell.

The Alliance for Choice has welcomed the landslide vote in favour of abortion rights in Northern Ireland in the House of Commons in Westminster on Tuesday July 16 and has urged the government to take action. An amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill 2019, tabled by Stella Creasy MP, passed by 332-99 votes. There must be no more delay on the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

The amendment states that if the Northern Ireland Assembly has not reconvened by October 21 2019, the government will be required  to change abortion laws in Northern Ireland. The change in the law will require the government to bring Northern Ireland’s abortion law into line with the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has recommended the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861.

Women, girls and pregnant people in Northern Ireland face some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.  Last year 1,053 women traveled to England and Wales to access abortion. The outcome of this vote is a huge step forward in support for human rights and a recognition that urgent action is needed. We urge the government to listen to the majority of the House of Commons and not to delay any further.

Concerns over House of Lords attempt to weaken proposal

The Bill is currently going through the House of Lords today (Wednesday July 17), and will return to the House of Commons for another vote tomorrow.

Campaigners for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland have raised their concerns regarding potential amendments in the House of Lords today to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which are aimed to derail or delay the Clause 9 as introduced by Stella Creasy MP.

An amendment to Clause 9 has been tabled by Lord Morrow and Baroness O’Loan which would require the government to “consult individually with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals” and that the regulations could only come in to effect with the agreement of a majority of MLAs.

Campaigners are calling on the Lords to support a revised amendment tabled today by Lord Dubs, Baroness Watkins, and Baroness Barker, supported by Stella Creasy, which has stated a completion date of January 13 – the same date that the amendment on equal marriage is expected to come into effect.

Abortion provisions and restrictions in Northern Ireland

There are existing regulations and provision for abortion already in Northern Ireland. Up until 2013, there were on average 80 abortions each year, usually due to foetal anomalies or severe illness. Marie Stopes was open from 2012-2017 and provided Early Medical Abortion (EMA) to people who met the strict criteria in Belfast, and scanned and referred others overseas. Unlike in the Republic since the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which is starting from scratch, we do have some existing provision and expertise on abortion – albeit limited.

There is currently a draft set of National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines to terminations which would be able to take effect in Northern Ireland if abortion is decriminalised. The guidelines state: “This guideline covers termination of pregnancy for women of any age. It aims to improve the organisation of services to make it easier for women to access a termination. Detailed recommendations on conducting terminations at different gestational stages are also included, to ensure that women get the most effective care possible.”

The Department of Health in the North has a formal link with NICE, under which NICE guidance – published on July 1, 2006 – is reviewed locally for its applicability to Northern Ireland and, where found to be applicable, is endorsed by the Department for implementation in health and social care service delivery.

Medical professionals support decriminalisation

A questionnaire was posted in 2009 to all 43 NHS gynaecologists in Northern Ireland. One had retired. After three mailings, 37 practitioners replied; a response rate of 88 per cent. Of these, 21 (57 per cent) favoured a liberalisation of the law in Northern Ireland . Even if all the non-responders opposed liberalisation, half (21/42) would still be in favour.

A total of 35 per cent (13 of 37) wanted unrestricted access in the first trimester, a more liberal position than allowed by the current law in Great Britain. A total of 29 (78 per cent) were in favour of free abortions for women from Northern Ireland, as is largely the case in England and Wales. A total of 19 (51 per cent) were in favour of abortion charities being licensed to carry out legal abortions in Northern Ireland but 38 per cent were opposed to this proposal.

The following medical bodies are in support of decriminalisation of abortion for women and pregnant people in Great Britain and Northern Ireland:

  • The Royal College of Midwives

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has long campaigned for women in Northern Ireland to be given the same rights and access to abortion healthcare services as women in the UK.

  • The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has stated: “Members of the Northern Ireland Committee have increasing concerns regarding the purchase of abortion-inducing medications online and the potential complications that can arise when they are not taken under medical supervision. This poses difficulties for healthcare professionals caring for women under such circumstances and places women and professionals at risk of imprisonment.”

“We are aware that women, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, are more likely to attempt to access abortion pills online, despite the recent changes in arrangements for abortion provision in England. It is also more likely that women may delay seeking help should they develop any complications from taking these pills, due to the fear of being discovered and the potential legal consequences.”

  • The Royal College of Nurses

Recently the Royal College of Nursing released the results of its consultation on decriminalisation. The UK-wide poll of members revealed that 73.7 per cent voted in favour of removing criminal sanctions on abortion – however, they are yet to take a position on this issue.

  • Medical Students for Choice

The Medical Students for Choice group has said: “We actively support the introduction of legislation to ensure the full decriminalisation of abortion in NI, and stand in solidarity with the Repeal the 8th coalition in the Republic of Ireland.

  • British Medical Association (the industry trade union)

The union representing medical professionals has stated: “The BMA supports the decriminalisation of abortion UK-wide. Abortion should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal issue.”

In a 2017 discussion paper on the issue, the union said it “supports the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland, where it would remain applicable if abortion was decriminalised (for example, if abortion was decriminalised up to 24 weeks’ gestation, the Abortion Act may still apply post 24 weeks gestation).

“The BMA has expressed concerns about section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 which places a legal duty, unique to Northern Ireland, on everyone to report to the police information they may have about the commission of a relevant offence (i.e. one with a maximum sentence of five years or more).”

The Alliance for Choice knows that there are medical professionals who support women’s access to abortion. We had a number of doctors, nurses and others who worked at Marie Stopes Belfast when it was operating between 2012 and 2017. We also know that there were a number of obstetricians and gynaecologists who provided abortions due to fatal foetal abnormalities and for so-called vulnerable women until the 2013 Guidelines from the Department of Health were released, following which the number of abortions per year dropped from an average of 80 to an average of 20, forcing other women to travel.

Emma Campbell is the co-chair of Alliance for Choice . You can follow the Alliance for Choice on Twitter @All4Choice and on Facebook here.

Being LGBT+ in the Traveller community: a personal reflection

By Lois Brooks-Jones.

I remember being sat on the armchair, nails diggings at the leather out of stress as a comfort. I was 14 years old and was preparing to tell my family that I am bisexual. I had known for years, trying to suppress myself due to a phobia of losing everyone I loved. I just wanted to be straight, and not have to worry about seeing the care in my mother and father’s eyes leave, no matter how often they professed their support for LGBT+ rights in small but meaningful ways. 

This fear increases when you come from a community which is currently experiencing mass programmes of assimilation by governments and institutional powers, where ideas of tradition and historical cultural values are clung to even harder, to feel a sense of identity in a world which has been trying for 1000 years to smite it.

You fear being rejected from a community which protects you from the pain and harm caused by wider gadjo society for your sexuality or gender identity, and then being rejected from mainstream society for not only being LGBT+, but also for being Gypsy, Roma Traveller (GRT) identifying. This is a common narrative for LGBT+ GRT youth trying to navigate their own identity as well as deconstructing the extent of their family’s love and support. This impacts mental health, emotional wellbeing, as well as potential regarding suicide victims. 

I was lucky to have my grandmother. When I was 13 years old she point-blank asked if I was gay, taking long drags from her cigarette as she looked at me with her dark eyes. Seeing my hesitation, she followed up her question by saying “Because it’s okay if you are, you know”.

This is a woman born amid 1930s fascism, who learnt what it meant to be persecuted based on an identity outside of her control, and that this level of discrimination and hatred must not happen again. Included in the mass murder under Nazi Germany, LGBT+ people were included, with up to 15,000 LGBT+ being transported to Nazi concentration camps, with 60 per cent believed to have been murdered there.

Need for a support network

When we discriminate against LGBT+ people, we discriminate and threaten the safety of members of our own, already marginalised community. My family not only fully supported me in my sexuality, but also support those without the support of their own families. In no way am I saying that GRT are intrinsically anti-LGBT+, my own family are a testimony to love and acceptance. However, we can’t deny a lack of acceptance for LGBT+ GRT youth in need of a support network. 

Changes are happening, albeit slowly, and we must celebrate the fact that this year for the first time, LGBT+ Travellers made history, as in we had official representation at London Pride. This should by no means be seen as an ends in itself, but instead a vital part in a long-running battle for recognition and acceptance; a momentum on which we can build and send out a strong message to not only LGBT+ GRT people specifically, but to our community in general. We must tackle these attitudes head-on and with pride in ourselves. 

When we begin to accept hatred towards others based on identity, we comply with our oppressors. We divide ourselves, define what is or isn’t GRT, and do the establishment’s work for them. 

Lois Brooks-Jones is currently studying politics and international relations. A British Romany Gypsy, she is a Gypsy Roma Traveller and LGBT+ activist. Follow on Twitter @TravellerLGBT

Talking period poverty with Homeless Period Ireland

Interview with Claire Hunt by Evelyn Flynn.

Evelyn Flynn, a medical student from Dublin, sat down with Homeless Period Ireland’s Claire Hunt to talk period poverty. 

EF: What is Homeless Period about? How did it come about?

CH: In December 2016, the Homeless Period Dublin initiative was born with a view to helping women and girls who found themselves unable access to basic sanitation and female hygiene products every month. In 2017 I took over the general management of the Homeless Period Dublin initiative.

A social media campaign was launched to highlight this issue. Through this campaign it became apparent that this was a national issue. Emanating from this campaign, a decision was made to rebrand the initiative to Homeless Period Ireland (HPI). This rebranding aimed to help create awareness nationally and, more importantly, increase the number of drop-off points (places were the general public donate female sanitary and hygiene products) as well as increase nationally reach the frontline services that have direct access to the women in need.

The aim of Homeless Period Ireland is to donate period products (pads, tampons, liners, wipes) to those who otherwise would go without.  The donations are brought by volunteer drivers to homeless outreach centres, direct provision centres and women’s refuges. The Homeless Period Ireland is an initiative, not a charity, and is 100 per cent reliant on volunteers for distribution and collection of sanitary products.

EF: Period poverty is clearly global, but why is it such a problem in Ireland in particular? 

CH: It’s no secret that Ireland has a severe homelessness problem. This has never been properly addressed by successive governments. It was only a matter of time before the issue of homelessness became a national scandal, which I believe it now has, and people are now starting to talk about it. 

Period poverty is just one aspect of overall poverty, but it is a subject that no-one wanted to talk about until recently. There are also women and children who are spending years in direct provision centres with no access to products. These are just some of the most vulnerable in society and are easily forgotten. What Homeless Period Ireland aims to do is make a small difference in people’s lives who find themselves in difficult situations. It is one less thing to worry about.

EF: What should the government be doing on period poverty? What are your demands? 

CH: It’s rather simple. Free access to sanitary products in all publically owned facilities including schools, universities, prisons, direct provision centres and refuges. We have seen great strides made in Scotland, England and Wales in this regard and our politicians are starting to sit up and take notice.

In fact, a motion was recently passed in the Dáil by a cross -party female caucus on this very subject. We hope that the Minister for Finance makes the appropriate provisions to roll out a scheme where free products are provided in the next budget.

EF: Homeless Period Ireland seeks to mitigate the undignifying results of period poverty, but what are its causes? 

CH: Period poverty stems from poverty itself. However, this is a female-only issue and traditionally the men in our society would not discuss a topic like this. Over time a taboo has surrounded the subject of periods as they are viewed as “icky” or with disgust. However, periods are a women’s health topic and should be treated as such. Until we can change people’s mindsets, the issue of period poverty will never be properly addressed. After all, without periods, there is no human race.

EF: There are many different menstrual products out there, how does your initiative ensure good quality products for everyone? Is there a problem with some cheap brands? 

CH: Homeless Period Ireland is happy to accept products for distribution regardless of the brand and the women who benefit from the public’s generous donations would say likewise. However, we have seen in some instances that certain brands are not fit for purpose and end up being a false economy.

We would advocate that when the Minister of Finance hopefully makes provisions in his budget for the supply of products that good quality products are sourced. Women also have different needs each month with some needing better products to keep themselves properly protected. As the old saying goes, “buy cheap, buy twice”.

EF: Periods are still extremely stigmatised. What’s your vision of world free of period-shaming? What does that look like? 

CH: We need to normalise periods and that starts with education – we need to educate both girls and boys about periods. We also need to see products more available in schools, universities, sports stadiums, etc. Availability and visibility of period products will help to break the stigma. 

EF: Homeless Period Ireland really hits home on the particular challenges of combating period poverty for homeless women in particular. Can you explain a bit more the particular challenges faced by homeless women in relation to period poverty?

CH: Imagine you stepped in a puddle. Your sock is wet, and your shoe is wet. You are far from home, so you have to walk around all day with your wet sock and your wet shoe with the cold seeping into your skin and bones. Your friends may mock you because you were so silly to step in the puddle in the first place so you say nothing. Imagine that happens for up to seven days in a row … and that it will happen again next month. That, sadly, is the reality for a lot of women experiencing period poverty.  

Claire Hunt runs Homeless Period Ireland and Evelyn Flynn is a medical student with an interest in women’s health. Follow Evelyn on Twitter @EvelynCFlynn.

You can follow Homeless Period Ireland on Twitter @HomelessPeriodD and on Instagram @homelessperiodireland.

Ailbhe Smyth: Repeal warrior speaks on future challenges for abortion rights

Ailbhe Smyth has been fighting to repeal the eighth amendment banning abortion since it was inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, and has been fighting for women’s liberation and LGBTI rights since the late 1980s. More than any other individual, she has provided the consistent leadership, energy and commitment to alliance-building that resulted in the historic victory of the Repeal movement in 2018. She spoke to Irish Broad Left editor Emma Clancy on Saturday April 20 about the significance of the campaign’s victory; the ongoing problems in implementation; and solidarity with those in the North fighting for their reproductive rights.

When I spoke to Ailbhe Smyth last week, it was just days after the three leaders of the Together for Yes campaign – Ailbhe, Grainne Griffin and Orla O’Connor – had been recognised for their work by Time magazine, who named them as being among the 100 most influential people of the past year.

“This recognition was terrific, of course”, Smyth said, “but not for us as individuals. It was a very important decision made to put the three co-directors of Together for Yes on this list because it put the issue of abortion itself at the very centre of this international and influential agenda.

“The Repeal campaign had a big impact internationally, and this recognition by Time should be viewed as a ‘hooray’ for women, copper-fastening the victory of the Repeal campaign in the international mainstream.

“Consider the international context: There was a specific reason why we were recognised for our successful campaign for women’s rights at a time when these rights are coming under attack around the world. Our victory was a much-needed morale boost for the pro-choice activists fighting for their rights in so many countries, including in Brazil, in Poland, and in the US itself, where there is a massive attempt by the conservatives to roll back hard-won reproductive rights at the state and federal level.

“We also welcome Time’s recognition of our movement because it demonstrates that despite the rapid growth of the far right around the world over the past several years, Ireland was able to buck this trend in 2018, just as we had done with the marriage equality referendum in 2015. So we have proved that people and communities working together can stand up and overcome the far right and the threat they pose.

“That is particularly significant at this precise moment, when we have progressives and socialists fighting to resist the drift to the far right in the crucial European Parliament elections in May. At this particular moment, there is enormous value in our campaign being named, recognised and applauded internationally. It is an affirmation that abortion rights matter, that women’s lives matter.”

A ‘phenomenal moment’

Ailbhe and her fellow pro-choice activists are not sitting on their laurels. At an event held on 13 April 2019, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th met for a working conference with its members, focussing on key topic such as international solidarity, ‘The North is Next’, and implementing the new abortion law and services.

In our interview, Smyth outlined some of the practical problems of implementation of the new law in the southern state, as well as problems with the legislation itself. In a way, she said, the real work is just beginning.

“We were always very clear in our broad campaign, involving 120 organisations, that Repeal was just the first step. We had to remove the obstacle preventing legislation for provision on abortion; we always viewed that goal as the first step in a much longer and more complex process. As soon as the eighth amendment was gone, a huge amount of hard work would have to take place,” Smyth said.

“Stage one was Repeal. Stage two is the very challenging work of making sure that the legislation is implemented properly and that services are provided for everyone who needs them.

“In fact the legislation itself is actually more progressive in certain ways than we had hoped for or anticipated when we started this process after the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was enacted in the Dáil. The broadening of the the legislation came about as a result of hard lobbying and campaigning over years, and were given shape and substance by the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.”

Like most pro-choice campaigners at the time, Smyth viewed the creation of Citizens’ Assembly with scepticism. “We saw it as a delaying tactic by the government and a way for the government to hide behind a smokescreen – regardless of whether the outcome of their deliberations was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. But pro-choice activists engaged fully with the Assembly regardless, and ensured that they heard the facts and the evidence, and, most importantly, the real-life stories of what the denial of abortion rights had meant for women in Ireland for decades.

“The Citizens’ Assembly gave genuine consideration to what abortion rights really meant to women’s lives in reality, and in the end, they gave a resounding ‘yes’. They voted firmly in favour of the legalisation of abortion here in Ireland for up to 14 weeks without restriction, and up to viability where there is a risk to a woman’s health. They also voted in favour of abortion in cases of fatal foetal anomaly.”

The Joint Committee in the Dáil then broadly upheld the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, although it did not vote for abortion for socio-economic reasons, and reduced the ‘on request’ time limit from 14 to 12 weeks.

“Ireland took a new direction when we voted to repeal the eighth amendment, and it was a phenomenal moment. We were asking voters to take this major step in a new direction on this, and asking them to affirm that they believed women should be able to make their own reproductive choices,” Smyth said.

“The referendum result indicated that we had indeed undertaken this huge turnaround as a people and as a society, as abortion had previously been considered so taboo, unacceptable, unspeakable.”

On 26 May 2018, the Repeal the Eighth campaign won the referendum with a massive 66.4 per cent of the vote. The new legislation came into effect on 1 January 2019.

Transforming culture in the health sector

Smyth said: “The outcome was better than we hoped, but the reality is that women’s autonomy is still subject to a set of laws in place regulating our bodies. I am opposed to any laws placing restrictions and regulations on women’s bodies and limiting the right to abortion. But that was always going to be the case, especially in Ireland. It means we have further work to do. To my knowledge, Canada is the only country in the world in which abortion is not subject to legislation. ”

Ailbhe went on to say that while the new law is to be welcomed, there are certain specific restrictions causing problems for individuals and groups of people.

“The legal profession, the medical and healthcare professions have all had to undertake a sharp turn on this issue since January; they have had to make a 180-degree turn in their mentality, and transform a culture of prohibition to one of making abortion legal and accessible. It is inevitable that there will be some problems in achieving this transformation, especially as we are only 100 days or so into the process. But it is very important, of course, that these problems should be resolved promptly.”

Training has has already taken place or is ongoing for health professionals, including GPs, midwives and nurses, and training in abortion provision is also taking place in public hospitals. Precise numbers are difficult to estimate but around 1,000 medical professionals have had training since 1 January 2019.

There is a political debate going on between different groups of GPs – one group argues that medical abortions should not take place in a general practice setting. However, a larger group of GPs have responded to this claim by stating that abortion provision is now already established in a GP setting in Ireland, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, and that limiting abortion provision to specialised abortion clinics only would add to the stigma and shame felt by women seeking an abortion.

Smyth believes these debates are inevitable but is already heartened by the strong response in favour of normalised and accessible abortion care from growing numbers in the healthcare profession.

“We need to support this cohort of progressive doctors, nurses, midwives and healthcare providers as they are engaging genuinely with their colleagues in general practice and in hospitals to put abortion services in place to meet people’s real needs.

“All hospitals are now offering some level of service, although only 10 hospitals have full abortion services. But I believe that all hospitals have now realised that they have a legal obligation to provide the services that the people effectively voted for in the referendum. Most hospitals appear to be developing provision and training.

“It is about moving the whole profession along – and the health service as a whole – and the hospitals are very aware of this. There have been complaints made that guidelines have been slow to come into the hospital system, so the process is not complete; it is ongoing and requires further development. Of course, as campaigners and activists we would all like to speed up that time so that everyone who needs an abortion can access it here in Ireland.

“Doctors need to be reassured that the people support them. The people voted overwhelmingly in favour of this. And there are so many people in the medical profession working wholeheartedly right now to make choice a reality. They need and deserve our support.”

Smyth said that abortion rights campaigners are hearing relatively positive feedback about the state-run Health Service Executive (HSE) My Options website and helpline aimed at providing information, including about abortion services, for people experiencing crisis pregnancies. “In general in the HSE I think there is a broad willingness there for people to work together to make this happen,” she said.

Legislative problems

“As we always knew, some of the biggest problems are those contained in the legislation itself. The so-called ‘three-day cooling-off period’ is a prime example. The insertion of this patronising provision was a strategy to try to mollify the reluctant politicians, and it is proving to be problematic in all the ways clearly outlined before the referendum by health professionals, lawyers and campaigners,” Smyth explained.

“The ‘cooling off’ period involves three visits by a woman to a GP; the first one where she indicates she wants to have an abortion; the second visit after the three day period; and then typically she will have to go back to the GP a third time for the actual service (i.e., the ‘abortion pill’), provided she is within the nine-week period.

“This is clearly not good for women psychologically or emotionally. But practically it can pose major problems. People from rural areas especially are experiencing problems. There may not be any GP locally willing to provide abortion services, and they will have to travel to another town, or perhaps to to Dublin or Cork to see a GP. This means time off work, travel costs, and childcare costs which may well prove very difficult. Where a woman is unfortunately in an abusive relationship, it may be very difficult for her to ‘explain’ these visits.

“There are specific difficulties which can arise for trans people, for women living in poverty, for women with disabilities, for migrant women and particularly for asylum-seeker women living in Direct Provision, who are appallingly supposed to survive on €19.50 a week.”

Smyth said to make abortion provision genuinely accessible, medical and health services must put supports in place to respond to the needs of specific groups, especially people who are marginalised, who always take the hardest hit where access is restricted.

“We have a lot of work to do to ensure that women who are marginalised have genuine access to these services. We always have to bear in mind that people do not come in one uniform shape and size; we live in a society riven with inequalities and these inequalities come to the fore as barriers that are so important when a person may be in a state of anxiety or turmoil and in need of an abortion.”

‘Conscientious objectors’

“So-called conscientious objectors in the medical profession are causing problems of access for women, particularly in rural areas. But they cannot simply turn a woman away; they are legally obliged to provide her with a referral. A woman who knows or suspects that her local GP is anti-abortion will most likely have to travel to a GP in another town. Rural women are hardly a marginalised group numerically, but given the negative response of some GPs, they may be made to feel that way,” Smyth said.

“We are trying to limit the damage that can be done by a small number of people who are trying to obstruct and thwart women from going about their absolutely legal business. It will take some time to get the new reality into the heads of those who oppose abortion – that providing abortion is the law of the land, and a human right that can no longer be denied. Opponents need to be made aware that they cannot obstruct people from accessing their rights without committing a breach of law, and being sanctioned in response.”

Abortion after the 12-week ‘on request’ period

“Within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, abortion access is straightforward – at least in principle. Medical abortion (the abortion pill) is not administered by GPs in Ireland after the first nine weeks of pregnancy, and in the nine to twelve-week period, women are referred by the GP to a hospital service,” Smyth said.

“After 12 weeks, abortion is available only in restricted circumstances: where there is a risk of ‘serious harm’ to a woman’s health, and where there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly, which means that the foetus is affected by a condition which is likely to cause its death before or within one month of birth.

“At this early stage of service provision we do not yet have official data, in the public domain, on how either of these situations is working out for women. But I think it is fair to say that problems may well arise when it comes to ‘serious risk’. ‘Serious’ is a subjective term, not a scientific one, as doctors pointed out to the Joint Oireachtas Committee. It is open to differing interpretation, and dependent on the judgment of the medical professionals. Similarly, there are likely to be difficulties with late diagnoses of fatal foetal anomaly.

“A key point we need to bear in mind, once past the 12-week period, is that the law has not fully decriminalised abortion. As it stands, medical professionals are still liable for prosecution and imprisonment if they perform an abortion outside the strict terms of the law. This obviously has a chilling effect on doctors’ activities.”

The Abortion Support Network, which supports people who need to travel from Ireland (north and south), the Isle of Man, Malta and Gibraltar to have a safe, legal abortion, have told Smyth that travel from the south of Ireland has dropped significantly this year. Ailbhe said this is a very welcome indication that “in general the law is working for the majority of people seeking abortion, but that there are certainly problematic areas which will have to be reviewed and resolved”.

Upcoming review of the legislation

The existing legislation is due to be reviewed within three years. Smyth says abortion rights campaigners will be pushing very hard for full decriminalisation of abortion to resolve the problems with late diagnoses of foetal abnormalities, and to ensure that the abortion should be able to take place without the subjective ‘serious risk’ requirement. The three-day cooling off period also has to go, she said.

“We were also promised safe access zones by the minister of health, but for a variety of reasons, the bill has not yet come before the Dáil and we don’t yet have this legislation in place. It is urgent that we get it into law. There were a few extreme examples of protests, harassment and intimidation of women, especially in January.

“The Taoiseach has said he is seeking advice on this matter from the Attorney General on the conflicting rights at play here. But it should be abundantly clear that in any conflict between the right to free speech and the right to safe access, the fundamental right to security must be paramount. It is absolutely crucial to have safe access – so we need this legislation in place now.”

Solidarity with women in the North

Ailbhe said the coalition of activists and groups who worked together on the Repeal campaign continue to work closely together, with several shared priorities. One of these is to ensure the effective, swift and smooth implementation of the existing legislation in the south to make sure that all women, including those from the most marginalised groups, have access to abortion services if they require them. Another priority is monitoring the problems in the existing legislation, and building a case for reform to be submitted to the government as part of the three-year review process.

Of course, building solidarity with the pro-choice activists in Northern Ireland, where women are still denied basic reproductive rights is a top priority of the all-island campaign networks.

Smyth said: “There is a tremendous sense of solidarity. Last week we held an event where the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth met for a conference where activists sat on a panel themed, ‘The North is Next’, with northern pro-choice activists such as Dawn Purvis taking part.

“There is a tremendous commitment to solidarity ideologically, but there is also huge level of practical solidarity through the close cooperation of organisations such as Abortion Rights Campaign and Alliance for Choice.

“The victory of the Repeal movement undoubtedly had a big impact in the North and gave a huge morale boost to organisations like Alliance for Choice. And that is brilliant. But for me, solidarity is not about telling people how to follow your own campaign, however successful. Each jurisdiction has its own set of unique circumstances and specific context. There is no template to follow.

“What we can do is respond to requests for practical solidarity, respond to questions about certain lessons we learned, and turn ourselves into a resource that can used by the people on the ground who understand their own jurisdiction and its particular challenges best.

“I would hope that we can keep the pressure on politically in the North. What I hope to see in future is unified legislation on unified abortion service provision on the island of Ireland – that’s the kind of solution we have to put on the agenda.”

Defending women’s rights internationally

Smyth concluded by pointing out that women and their reproductive rights have been a permanent target of the far right, meaning vigilance and solidarity in the coming years will be exceptionally important.

“International solidarity on abortion rights is becoming more important than ever in the current political climate where we have an upswing in the far right in Europe, the US and around the world.

“Women’s rights and women’s bodies are always one of the prime targets of the far right – so we have to continue to work together, support each other, and share our resources in order to defend the gains we have won and push for more,” she said.

Photo pictured above: Ailbhe Smyth (centre), with Orla O’Connor, left, and Grainne Griffin, who collectively were named as among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people as the three co-directors of Together for Yes.

Ailbhe Smyth is co-director of Together For Yes and Convenor of Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment. Follow her on Twitter @ailbhes. Follow the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment @repealeight, and Together for Yes @Together4yes. To support the Alliance for Choice in the North, follow @All4Choice.

Undercover at a global gathering of right-wing religious fundamentalists

By Eimear Sparks.

Last weekend, Verona hosted the World Congress of Families, a global gathering of religious fundamentalists and representatives of right-wing movements, including the Italian government, who seek to restore ‘the natural order’. Their tactics include denying women access to contraceptive and abortion care, putting in place impediments to divorce, and opposing LGBTQI rights of any kind.

Described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-LGBT hate group”, the Congress provoked a furore among students, families, NGOs and progressive activists from across Europe, with tens of thousands flocking to Verona to march against the oppressive values of the meeting.

While these progressive voices claimed the streets outside, participants inside the conference were unperturbed and even encouraged by the criticism. They spoke freely of their xenophobic, anti-women and anti-LGBTQI agenda and railed against those who would deny them their “free [hate] speech”.

It was a safe space for hate speech and quackery, where dodgy statistics and pseudoscience were used to score points against marginalised groups. Speakers demonstrated a startling and dangerous lack of clarity in their terminology where “the media”, “the left” and “the EU” were used interchangeably, united only in their status as “enemy”.

Each component of this “enemy” was considered complicit in a coordinated cultural revolution seeking to destroy “European” (read: white and Christian) civilization through the imposition of LGBTQI and feminist values.

So far, so grimly predictable. More interesting, however, was the criticism levelled at Europe’s economic system, and how this was rolled up with the Congress’s attack on human rights. Several speakers blamed the imagined EU-media-leftist-industrial-complex for the 2008 bank bail-out and accelerated financialisation.

European politicians such as Matteo Salvini (Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister), Giorgia Meloni (leader of Brothers of Italy) and far-right French MEP Nicolas Bay attacked the individualism of modern society, which they claimed meant people were valued only as consumers. As such, human rights movements were interpreted as allies to the neoliberal agenda of capitalist leaders, which would come as a surprise to most of the left-wing activists out protesting fascism in Verona that weekend.

At times, this critique of the current economic order had bizarre overlaps with feminist thinking. There was broad agreement that many Europeans live in societies where women can no longer afford to have children, thanks to austerity and childcare costs.

But that’s as far as the feminist parallels ran: according to participants, feminists want to shame women who wanted to have families and force them instead to continue working. Speakers co-opted feminist language of self-determination, stating that women’s right to choose not to have an abortion should be privileged.

The use of pro-choice language in this way hinges on a deliberate misunderstanding of feminist values concerning equal opportunity. For feminists, ‘choice’ has always been about self-determination and the prioritisation of women’s wellbeing, in whatever direction that might be. What’s more, participants’ concern for mothers’ freedom from financial burden seemed hollow considering discussion of how it related to demographic decline.

The procreation of white, Christian families was considered key in counteracting a decline in Europe’s population, and politicians such as Hungary’s Minister for Family, Youth and International Affairs, Katalin Novak, presented the incentives she was offering to women to have children, to uproarious applause. Financial support for mothers seemed less about privileging women’s choice, and more about racist, longer-term demographic goals.

It was also necessary to unpack what speakers at the Congress meant by “individualism”. Talk of the economic dimension to this term quickly fell away when speakers ploughed ahead with their oppressive agenda. They presented individualisation as the result of an ideology that, in its vision of inclusivity, had forced people to shed identities as Christians, nationalists and family members. As such, the identities of ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘daughter’ and ‘son’ were no longer privileged, and risked being replaced by the terms ‘parent 1’ and ‘parent 2’.

It is, of course, unsurprising that in spite of an ostensible yearning for family and community, participants were steadfast in their efforts to exclude and deny protection to families that do not consist of a man, woman, and their (preferably numerous) cis children.

So what can the left take from the World Congress of Families? Rhetoric at the event was often so jumbled and ill-defined that nuance was hard to grasp, but nuance isn’t the point. What we know is that the Congress and its supporters are striving towards a world premised on the erasure of LGBTQI individuals, a handmaid’s-tale vision for the role of women and the hegemony of white Christianity – and that anyone contesting this agenda is an enemy to their cause. As such, for the Congress, differences between capitalists and progressives, NGOs and the media are not necessary to demarcate.

What we also see is an accelerated co-option of the language of the left. We have known for a long time that rights-based language has been adopted by the anti-rights movements, and many of us have observed the use of words such as ‘love’ and ‘equality’ by anti-choice, anti-LGBTQI movements. We must now stand firm – not only by our values, but by our language, so that words such as ‘love,’ ‘rights,’ ‘choice’ and ‘equality’ are not corrupted by hate.

Eimear Sparks is an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights and a current member of the SheDecides 25×25 young leaders. She has experience campaigning for abortion rights in several contexts, including during the Repeal the 8th campaign and with Women on Waves during their campaign in Mexico in 2017.

Photo above by Martina Šalov.

Period poverty, women’s health and the environment

By Meadhbh Bolger.

For much of their lives, half of the world’s population need menstrual products to live a decent life, yet many cannot afford them. In the Irish state, they cost an average of €100 per woman per year – and their use, particularly of disposable products made mostly of plastic and a concoction of chemicals, comes with concerning impacts on the environment and on women’s health.

In Northern Ireland and Britain, sanitary products are still subject to a VAT tax rate of five per cent until 2022. Costly, dangerous and with periods often still mired in shame and stigma, the question of access to safer alternatives is a vital environmental and social justice issue to tackle.

Thankfully, as a society – in Ireland, Europe and globally – we are slowly becoming more open to having conversations and initiating actions to address period poverty and access to safe and environmentally friendly menstrual products.

There are inspiring initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland, The Red Box project and Plastic Free Periods; conversations and action at the political level on reducing the environmental impacts of menstrual products; increasing access to products for the most vulnerable; and pushing for regulation on concerning chemicals that make up menstrual products and end up in women’s bodies. The introduction of a period emoji this month is another step forward in normalising conversations around periods.

We need to work together on multiple levels:

  • Access to basic essentials for all – period poverty is real.
  • Ensuring safe products – women need to be in control of what we are put in our bodies.
  • Looking after the planet – making reusable menstrual products more widely available and accessible.
  • Smashing the shame, stigma and taboos around periods.

‘Period poverty’ is real

A survey in June 2018 showed that half of Irish teenagers struggle with the average cost of €10 a month to buy tampons and sanitary towels. The most financially deprived women in the country – including those on direct provision, those in shelters or those who are homeless – are forced to choose between basic essentials.

Initiatives like Homeless Period Ireland are doing fantastic work to tackle this period poverty, and supply menstrual products to these women and girls, and similar initiatives are in action around Europe. Furthermore, on 4 March a cross-party group of female politicians joined forces to propose legislation in the Dáil, urging free menstrual products for women and girls in direct provision, homeless hubs and schools.

What is going into our bodies and who profits from it?

Disposable menstrual pads are made of up to 90 per cent plastic and can contain chemicals like BPA, phthalates and petrochemical additives. These are known endocrine-disrupting substances, linked to heart diseases, infertility and cancer.

Phthalates, which are also a common ingredient in tampon applicators, are known to disrupt hormone function and may lead to multiple organ diseases. A recently-published French investigation confirmed the substances, including these toxic chemicals, released from menstrual products are absorbed by the body.

Women deserve to know what goes into our bodies, but the multi-billion-dollar industry that manufactures feminine and other hygienic products and profits from them, succeeds in making us believe that disposables are not only the most convenient and affordable option, but that they also have no health or environmental risks.

Manufacturing companies are not legally required to disclose all of the ingredients in their products. These gaps in regulation need to be closed and products tested and regulated for safety concerns. Organisations and politicians are pushing to make this happen, for example, through EU legislation to remove hazardous chemicals from all menstrual products and ensure chemicals used are fully disclosed.

Disposable pads and tampons harm the planet

Disposable menstrual products are essentially single-use plastics. In fact, they have recently been defined as such under EU law. During her lifetime, a woman will have her period for up to 3,000 days, the equivalent of 8.2 years and typically will use up to 16,000 disposable feminine hygiene products – enough to fill two minibuses.

Pads and tampons are the fifth-most common type of waste found on Europe’s beaches, having been flushed down toilets. It can take over 100 years for them to break down, whether in landfills, on illegal dumping grounds, or in seas and oceans. They also block sewage systems. All in all, they have a short lifetime yet a significant negative impact on the marine and other environments, including releasing hazardous chemicals and adding to microplastic pollution.

Better alternatives?

What alternatives do exist? There are actually all kinds of safe plastic-free and toxic-free options available in various shapes and sizes to suit women’s needs and match their comfort level: ultra-absorbent “period underwear” that can be washed and reworn, menstrual cups that can hold three to four times more blood than a tampon, washable organic cotton pads, and EU Ecolabel-certified disposable menstrual products (if reusables are not an option).

But these items aren’t always available, and awareness of them remains low. In addition, reusable period underwear takes a long time to dry, and menstrual cups need to be washed out with warm water every four to eight hours — something that may be difficult for women during the workday.

A major barrier to choice is the upfront cost of these products. However, although they do cost more initially (potentially being a barrier to women already experiencing period poverty), over a woman’s lifetime they are much cheaper than disposables. A single menstrual cup costs around €34, and each pair of period underwear can cost around €30, with multiple pairs needed for one period cycle. Overall, using reusables costs just six per cent of the of the price of disposable menstrual products.

Women who are in the financial position to be able to make a choice need to be better informed: we need more transparency about what is in these products, and more openness when talking about them and periods more generally. Periods are not something that should be kept hidden, and menstrual products are not things that should be quickly used and disposed of without thinking of the harm they cause to women’s health and the environment.

That said, obviously women who use tampons and pads cannot be labelled as plastic polluters when realistically, alternative safe and environmentally friendly options are simply not widely accessible, affordable and usable for all, particularly for women and girls who experience period poverty or are on low incomes. This makes the battle against period poverty – and poverty in general – all the more important for women’s health and the environment.

Meadhbh Bolger is a resource justice campaigner with the environmental and social justice organisation Friends of the Earth Europe. Follow her on Twitter @MeadhbhBolger.

Inequality is at the heart of violence against women

By Emma McArdle.

Domestic abuse: it’s an issue that is so common and quietly permitted in society that many people who are actually suffering don’t see it for what it is.

The prevalence of domestic abuse is staggering. (I use the term ‘domestic abuse’ instead of ‘domestic violence’ because the physical aspect of it, while awful, is only one part of a sufferer’s experience.)

The World Health Organisation estimates that 35 per cent of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence. In a major survey in 2014, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency found that 14 per cent of women in the Irish state have experienced physical violence by a partner; six per cent have experienced sexual violence by a partner; 12 per cent of respondents have experienced stalking, and 31 per cent have experienced psychological violence by a partner.

Women’s Aid points out that, of the 225 women who have been murdered in this state since 1996, at least 56 per cent were killed by their current or former partner, and 61 per cent were killed in their own homes. Sixteen children were murdered along with their mothers over the same period during an attack by the woman’s partner.

The Domestic Violence Act 2018, recently passed in the Dáil, is a really good piece of legislation. There is now a new criminal offence of ‘coercive control’, referring to psychological abuse which causes fear. This is really important because it gets to the core of any abusive relationship.

Abuse is based on inequality

Many abusive relationships are not overtly violent: instead, the victim is controlled and dominated. Not being allowed control of money, constantly being put down, having your children turned against you, never being allowed to make a decision, being instructed to leave your job, dress a certain way, act a certain way, etc. These are all hallmarks of domestic abuse.

The essence of domestic abuse is inequality.

There is a research model called the Duluth Power and Control Model, which has concluded that men who abuse women have a sense of entitlement, a belief that they can get away with it, and a belief that their lives should take priority.

From a feminist theory point of view the primary explanation for the level of violence against women in society is the inequality of women in society.

That is not to say that an individual is not responsible for their actions, because they are. But the economic and social construct in which women are subordinated – the patriarchy, in other words – creates an environment which enables and facilitates abuse.

Historically societies have given greater wealth, status, influence and control to men. Some examples of female gender oppression across the world occur in access to education, land ownership, the salary gap, sex-selective abortions, female genital mutilation, child marriage, so-called honour killings, and more.

In the Irish context the Proclamation of 1916 is addressed to Irishmen and Irishwomen and it guaranteed equal rights and opportunities to all citizens. The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil is a very egalitarian text. But by 1937, we see anti-women clauses being inserted into the Irish Constitution, such as Article 41 which refers to a women’s place being in the home.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, inserted in 1983, denied access to abortion services and actually criminalised women. This injustice has finally been ended in part of this country through the victory of the Repeal campaign – and the North is next.

Victims left behind

Across this country the services for victims and survivors of domestic abuse are substandard. Statistics from Safe Ireland in the South and the Women’s Aid Federation in the North state that in the year of 2015 alone over 76,000 calls – that’s 208 calls per day – were made to domestic abuse support services.

Also in 2015, more than 2,500 women and nearly 3,000 children stayed in refuge accommodation. More than 5,000 women could not be accommodated in refuges because they were full.

In 2016 the Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Orla O’Connor, stated that the collection and analysis of data on domestic and sexual violence was not adequate so we don’t really know the true scale of the issue at present.

While domestic abuse has an enormous personal impact on victims and their families it also has wide-reaching economic consequences. It results in costs to the health service, the courts, social services, An Garda Síochána, education settings and housing agencies.

Research estimates that the cost of domestic abuse is in the region of €555 per person per year across EU member states. In the Irish context, domestic abuse costs approximately €2.2 billion per year.

Advocacy groups estimate that over the course of the economic recession in the Irish state, public funding to the sector was slashed by a massive 31 per cent, almost one-third.

Historically the Irish state has lagged behind other European countries of similar population in the provision of refuge accommodation; for example, at one point Ireland had then 11 refuges compared with Norway’s 400.

There is some really good work being done across Ireland and it is much more than just the provision of emergency accommodation. There are school programmes, personal development and counselling for victims and, very interestingly, through perpetrator programmes. Insights from these programmes have provided a greater understanding of the cultivation of the abusive relationship.

Perpetrator programmes are useful because they are effective in eventually changing the abusive behaviour of participants, and because they provide insights that help to develop preventative measures. They focus on changing the behaviour of the person in the wrong, instead of that of the victim.

However, as they are court-mandated the participants are generally only those who and already visible to gardaí – the vast majority of domestic abuse cases never get near court.

I finish with another statistic: in 2016 there were 16 domestic homicides in this state. That’s the same number of people who were killed in the Hutch Kinahan gangland feud – but where did the media focus its attention?

Emma McArdle is a Sinn Féin activist and political advisor. Follow her on Twitter @Eire_Libre.

Striking for women’s rights

By Jade Tenwick.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” — Audre Lorde.

This year, at the age of 25, I am planning to strike and march for the first time for women’s rights. I will be joining countless others in Brussels, at least 1,200 according to the Facebook event, which aims to show that “when women stop, the world stops turning”.

This is the first strike of its kind in Brussels. It follows a similar action last year in Spain where more than five million women took to the streets bringing the country to a halt. The strike was to bring attention to the pay gap, violence against women, and several other issues.

This is not only the first strike of its kind in Brussels, but also my first strike. You may wonder why, given that I had had the opportunity living in other countries to strike for women’s rights.
Simply put, this is the first job I have ever had, in which I feel safe that this action would not affect my job security.

Working for an employer who supports the equality of the sexes, I felt comfortable knowing I could explain why I was not going to be in the office that day. In previous jobs, I did not have that security for two reasons: in some jobs, I would have lost my wages (and I could not afford that), and in other jobs, I was worried that striking would taint my reputation (which I could also not afford). Now I am not only striking but also writing about it – progress!

The reason for this I am sure some people can understand: I did not want to be seen as a troublemaker. During my brief stint in a corporate office, I felt that I could not take the day off to strike for women’s healthcare rights in Ireland. At the age of 21, I did not want to give anyone the idea that I wanted to disrupt the status quo. Now I am unapologetically calling for the system to be dismantled.

All the women who can strike should strike. We need to strike for those who are in positions that cannot. It is not only our right, but our responsibility.

Watch Laci Green’s video ‘Why I’m A Feminist’ here.

For the day that is in it, here is a list of a few reasons why I will be marching for women’s rights, in no particular order:

Street harassment: Some people argue this is flattering. Well, at 3am in the morning when you are walking home from finishing your shift in a pub, it is definitely not flattering to have a motorbike trail behind you, proceed to drive onto the pavement blocking your path so he can talk to you on a dark street. That is petrifying, not flattering.

Career or kids? I have been told many times that in order to ‘catch’ a good husband and bring up good children, I would have to lower my professional ambitions and decide to stay at home – both explicitly and implicitly. I have also been asked what the point of going to university was if I was going to do nothing but become a mother. What is the use of a degree when I wanted children? There was no choice presented of having both.

Rape culture: Related to the above point, being told by a man that women deserved to be raped based on their clothing choices. Sorry, I forgot men were not able to control themselves. This attitude is not only found in conversations, but also found in the Irish courts, where in a recent rape case, the victim was questioned on her choice of underwear.

Choices: While working on an advocacy project on the subject of child marriage in Syrian refugee camps, I would hear a number of stories from the field staff working with these communities. One of the most harrowing accounts I heard was of a woman explaining to her 12-year-old daughter what to expect on her wedding night. There were other stories that stuck with me, but this was the most gut-wrenching. A 12-year-old should be in school, not in a marriage.

My aim in sharing these stories is to show that the personal is political and the political is personal. The laws and cultural norms we live under are responsible for creating a world in which half of the population is disadvantaged. Let’s dismantle this structure and create one that allows everyone an equal footing.

Jade Tenwick is an Irish refugee rights activist living in Brussels. Follow her on Twitter @JadeTenwick.

Now for NI: Fighting for abortion rights in the North

By Emma Campbell.

Just last week Alliance for Choice in Belfast and Derry signed two letters – one was a joint letter from some of the pro-choice groups in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) to health minister Simon Harris TD about the shameful gaps and barriers built in to the current abortion provision.

The second was a joint letter from public figures, women’s groups and politicians in the UK to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in Westminster asking them to include Northern Ireland (NI) and migrant women in the Domestic Abuse Bill.

As a campaigning organisation based in Northern Ireland (NI), we are obliged to work towards change in three different jurisdictions.

One struggle is for cultural inclusion and built upon an incredibly strong base of solidarity from years of working with the aforementioned groups in ROI, but fraught with jurisdictional and legal barriers.

The second is within NI, coaxing (understandably) cautious individuals and organisations out into the blinding light of openly supporting abortion rights.

The third is in the UK, where the approach is less about abortion and more about the intricacies of devolution and convincing the MPs and British public that this really is something that people in NI want, despite what is misrepresented by the DUP in Parliament.

Similar to the assertion that neither lobbying or marching alone will deliver the asks of our campaign, our goals cannot ever be met by appealing to one of the jurisdictions without the others. Even if the campaign itself were not so intentionally aimed, we are a cross-community, all-walks group; we need to make sure that we will not leave anyone behind, right down to our #TheNorthIsNext and #AbortionRightsNI hashtags on social media.

It is a delicate balancing act. We have been levelled with many accusations in the course of our work, from “high satanic abortion wizards” (we’ll take it), to “a cabal of nationalist feminists”, to “Brits” and even, believe it or not, “women-haters” when we have dared to be trans* inclusive.  

We can handle the slurs, it comes with the territory, but what we can never do is change the locus of power. The control held over us and our bodies is relationally very different according to jurisdiction. Usurping that power therefore requires varying approaches.

Few would argue against the notion that the cultural stranglehold over the ideas, myths and stigmas that surround abortion are shared most closely with the rest of ROI. The deep religiosity and its influence on our gender norms and expectations are the same, even if the type of Christianity isn’t as homogenous. Our food, language, music and craic is all more similar to each other than it is to Great Britain’s.

The relief and joy of the result of the recent abortion referendum, one which we involved ourselves in to canvass, was of course about the incredible victory for our siblings but also it offered us hope that we are not far behind. This vital cultural power has already swayed more to our favour as a result; however, legislatively we cannot invoke direct change from Dáil Éireann.

What we are up against in the 2019 version of NI is a place that is twice a country but no country at all. As citizens, we are tethered physically to this island and legislatively to another. The so-called ‘narcissism of small differences’ plays out so exactly in these six counties; the primacy of national identity above all else supposes that everyone places it at the forefront of their daily existence.

Aside from obfuscating those who identify with neither a unionist or nationalist mindset, this insistence on flag-bearer above all else subsumes the many other important identities any one person may inhabit. Survivors of abuse, children, people with disabilities, BAME people, LGBT+ people, women, working and jobless class, and so on are all encompassed by people simultaneously.

Having no sitting assembly is a blessing and a curse: on the one hand it opens a path to a greater source of power (England’s difficulty could be our opportunity…); on the other it could mean a never-ending delay on rights. Consequently, our job on home turf is consciousness-raising from the grassroots up and recognising the experience of abortion is a universal one and one that should not be exiled.

The final and most complicated locus of control is the British government at Westminster. Alliance for Choice was disappointed that the Assembly failed to be able to move past its latest controversy; however, whilst Stormont was burning, we were working with the United Nations to host the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for their inquiry into abortion in NI.

Our current position with Westminster, as pronounced by CEDAW – that devolution is no barrier to human rights – clearly positions Westminster as the seat of our current oppression. The DUP loom large as the main protagonists in standing over our wombs and sexuality like creepy sentinels, but they have had a hand from the UK government, in the shape of a confidence and supply deal with the Tories.

By painting themselves as a truly representative voice for all of NI in the UK Parliament (with only one sitting moderate MP in the shape of Lady Sylvia Hermon) and with no sitting MPs from any other party present to disrupt their Caleb Foundation-directed position, the real voice of the people in NI is never heard. Even though Sinn Féin don’t take their seats, they signed this letter requesting action from Westminster.

We are faced with a riddle; the ROI wants to help, and has offered the most meaningful solidarity from all quarters, but is unable to assist us significantly. NI’s six counties would be afraid to do anything on its own even if it currently could – civil servants will not make such a controversial decision and have not been given the powers to by the Secretary of State.

Ultimately, the UK government can do something, has been told by a UN body that it should do something, and is even holding its own inquiry about how to do something and yet… the mess that is Brexit has guaranteed the anti-abortion DUP unprecedented influence on the Tory party who currently need them for government.

For progress to occur, Westminster must end our oppression, remove their colonial stranglehold on our reproduction and grant us recognition as equal to all abortion seekers in the UK.

Emma Campbell is the Co-Chair of Alliance for Choice, Belfast. Visit Alliance for Choice’s website here. Follow Alliance for Choice on Twitter @All4Choice.