50.50

Ending the humiliation of women in Northern Ireland

Women demanding democratic participation in Northern Ireland's peace process are using human rights principles to confront the hostility and exclusion they face from those in control of decison-making structures.

Kate Ward
14 April 2015

The humiliation experienced by women attempting to challenge the impenetrable decision-making structures that control their lives is not often the focus of political discussion. The late Inez McCormack, who spent much of her life at the service of women and the most vulnerable, often referred to these humiliations as the ‘daily indignities’. As Beatrix Campbell sets out in her tribute, McCormack was an acclaimed peace-builder and human rights activist, who put recognition of inequality and disadvantage, and redress for this, as a condition for peace. Part of her legacy is the Belfast-based human rights organisation Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), which she founded on the basis of her belief that these ‘daily indignities’ existed as a result of the absence of equality and rights.

PPR works with a number of groups to support women's increased participation in small 'p' politics, movements and campaigns.  By engaging in the practice of rights, these campaigns challenge the status quo by using the construct of human rights to shape a more genuine democratic practice in the decision-making that impacts their lives. 

Equality Can’t Wait is a group of women, most of whom are mothers, living in north Belfast who face the daily indignity of substandard social housing conditions and lengthy waiting lists to be rehoused into accommodation suitable for raising their children. In 2007 PPR held housing clinics in the area, collecting evidence about the extent of the human rights impact of poor conditions and long waiting lists. This has since developed to include strategic support in holding housing bodies and the NI Executive to account through a mixture of organising, policy and research support, and capacity building.

Since May 2012, the women running the Equality Can't Wait campaign have been calling for the Northern Ireland Executive to develop and resource a strategy that will meet their well-evidenced need for social housing in north Belfast. Through a Freedom of Information request last year, the group discovered that not once has the issue even made it onto the agenda of an Executive meeting. This is despite the support of 49 MLAs from five of Stormont’s political parties for their campaign, who signed a pledge committing to use their power to deliver the strategy set out in the campaign call. The MLAs support followed pressure from the United Nations, with a report calling on the NI Executive to adopt “concerted efforts” to tackle housing inequality in north Belfast.

Equality Can’t Wait is just one example among many in Northern Ireland of campaigns which, despite not being typically perceived as around ‘women’s issues’, are run or led by women who are drawn together on the basis of their common experience, engaging initially with personal issues – ‘how can I get the Housing Executive to fix the damp?’ for example – before becoming involved in collective action that seeks redress for the structural issues.

This rights-based approach also aims to remove the hierarchical structure of power that characterises many small ‘p’ political movements in community development, NGO and government-established structures. Equality Can’t Wait, for example, don’t conform to conventional community development governance structures. There is no Chair, Secretary or Treasurer and no AGMs are held. PPR’s role in facilitating meetings is to remove practical barriers to their participation: for example, access to childcare, organising taxis, planning meetings around the school runs and confidence-building.

The rights-based approach places norms such as accountability, equality and participation at the core. The women recognise that their participation is not a tick box exercise, but the driver for the process. By altering the campaigning relationship to one where the women’s demands are set out on the basis of rights and obligations the government has already signed up to, the women know what they are asking for is legitimate. Take, for example, the dynamics faced by these women in relation to the Housing Executive and the community-based Housing Officers when the women took them around their homes to point out the damp and mould. “It’s because you are drying your clothes inside girls”, was the response. On a more personal basis, altering this power dynamic through the practice of rights also restores some of the stolen dignity to the women told by the Housing Executive that the damp in their flats was their fault. 

Another example is the Belfast Mental Health Rights Group (BMHRG), a collective also largely comprised of women who have firsthand experience of accessing our mental health system. This group came together against the backdrop of rising suicides in North and West Belfast in 2007, and has since expanded to encompass all areas of the city. The BMHRG is made up of mental health service users and carers and families bereaved through suicide, with a shared concern around accessing follow-up mental health care treatment when in mental health distress or crisis. The group were successful in achieving Ministerial agreement for a new mental health appointment card in 2012, but their determination to be involved in the body charged with the new scheme’s implementation was met with resistance.

Based on their previous experience of involvement in government-led consultative structures, the group knew that their participation could only be meaningful if certain requirements were met at the outset. Again the structure afforded by human rights principles guided their demands. They set human rights ‘participation indicators’; they would measure how well the body fulfilled their human right to be informed and to have meaningful participation. Participation indicators were to be their tool to ‘put manners on power’.

What they asked for was basic: agendas and papers to be sent in advance, technical ‘jargon’ to be kept to a minimum in meetings, and Health Trusts to report on how well the scheme was operating using a simple template. Confronted with the repeated failure to fulfil these basic requests, the group sought to hold the Board to account and legitimately requested leave to be heard at a public meeting of the Health and Social Care Board in June 2011. Over the course of their engagement with the Board, the group also publicised their fears that failure to conduct meetings properly would pose a threat to good service delivery through a short film they made, and by regular use of the press - including The Detail and Belfast Telegraph

The Chair of the Board reacted with hostility to the group’s actions, and in an email to a colleague released under FOI he expressed his view that the group - who were later excluded from seeing the final version of the scheme’s evaluation - had, through their use of democratic mechanisms for accountability, effectively ‘excluded’ themselves: “As far as I am concerned, they have excluded themselves, we cannot allow such issues to prevent us from carrying out our statutory duty.”

As Margaret Ward has written in this series of critical perspectives on women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland on 50.50, the promises of participative governance and women’s full and equal participation, which were so central to our peace agreement, are lacking in enforcement. What the above examples from women-led groups demonstrate is that, despite the ostentatious culture of participative democracy created here in Northern Ireland, with the Executive’s emphasis on consultations, forums and ‘service user involvement’, decision-making largely remains a closed process.

Despite the legal impetus in the Good Friday Agreement to integrate the experiences of the most marginalised into post-conflict public policy decisions through the Section 75 ‘Equality duty’ – a process that requires the involvement of these groups – the reality falls well short. ‘Invitations’ to participate are restricted to a predetermined framework with rules of engagement already in place. However, when women, or men for that matter, try to engage on the basis of their experience and increasingly, their rights, this upsets the process and the balance of power. 

Ultimately, it is the women involved in these groups who best describe the importance of disrupting traditional power relationships to achieve real change. Asked about why they were involved in the mental health and housing campaigns during a meeting in late 2011 they underlined their experience of Inez McCormack’s assertion that the absence of rights is the presence of humiliation; the ‘daily indignities’.

For Angie, a founding member of Equality Can’t Wait, it was a system which belittled her concerns: “They tell us that there is no such thing as damp. Its damp, it’s wet. I’m not stupid, I’m a person and I think we have to get these people to treat us as people. For a long time we were supposed to be grateful for just having a roof over our head, and then we were told it was our human right to have a decent roof over our heads. Not one that leaks, that lets every draught in. And it’s still a fight to put that through to the people in power, that we deserve to live in a better place and that we’re human so they shouldn’t treat us like that. We’re not non people, but they deny us that, to our faces, time and time again.” Bette, a Belfast Mental Health Rights Group member,  described the importance of asserting her dignity: “We’re the people on the ground; we’re the people with the voice. Especially with mental health, we’re being told how we should feel ... But we will march on and we will fight because you know we are all human and we need the respect and the dignity that we all deserve and that’s not happening now.”

Read more articles on 50.50's series on Women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland

                                                                                                                                                        

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