Excluded and silenced: Women in Northern Ireland after the peace process

There is a backlash against women’s agency in Northern Ireland in a number of different ways, all of which impact on the ability of women to participate fully in initiatives intended to deal with the legacy of the past and support the transition out of conflict.

Margaret Ward
12 June 2013

Northern Ireland is not yet a society at peace as the legacy of the past continues to overshadow our present. Contention over the flying of flags and the holding of parades in disputed areas has made for increased instability over the past year – and has led to the N.I. Executive inviting Richard Haass and Megan O’Sullivan from the United States to facilitate talks as part of a process to find a solution to these issues.  At the same time, there is a backlash against women’s agency in a number of different ways, all of which impact on the ability of women to participate fully in initiatives intended to support the transition out of conflict. 

This brief article considers some of the key issues affecting women’s lives and their ability to contribute fully to the work of peace building and conflict transformation.  Some of the views contained within the article were gathered during workshops organized by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA), the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and the National Women’s Council of Ireland, who are partners in a significant project entitled Women and Peacebuilding: Sharing the Learning (2012-2014) which aims to capture the experiences of women living through the conflict and through the subsequent period of conflict resolution and peace building in Northern Ireland. 

Reproductive Rights

While political parties are divided on constitutional issues, they share many characteristics when it comes to women – they are very conservative. Abortion remains a criminal offence. The British 1967 Abortion Act does not apply. When the issue was debated in the Assembly 2000 and 2007 there was overwhelming opposition to any progressive reform of the abortion law, although women members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs)  were largely either supportive or remained quiet, despite the fact that the N I Assembly has no power to reform this law as it remains a 'reserved matter' under the control of Westminster.

The peace process also impacts on issues like abortion. When an amendment to a Westminster Bill on Human Fertilisation and Embryology was to be put by a British Labour MP in July 2008, she was told by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown that if she did so she would be jeopardising the peace process because the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)  (which has 9 seats in the House of Commons and is opposed to abortion) would object. The British government wanted DUP votes to support 42 day detention for terrorist suspects.

New guidelines issued in 2013 to the medical profession by the DUP Minister for Health, aimed at restricting the extremely limited circumstances in which terminations of pregnancies have taken place, has led to situations where women with non viable foetuses have been refused medical help and forced to travel to England for terminations, without medical support or NHS assistanceThis has led to public outcry and calls for the reform of abortion legislation in Northern Ireland. Ironically, it has also led to the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast, established one short year ago (November 2012) amidst great controversy, having the BBC, on its first anniversary, broadcast its morning news programme, Good Morning Ulster, from the Clinic, providing very positive news coverage. When public opinion enters the mix, it is clear that political parties are not reflecting a more liberal and tolerant attitude that is beginning to emerge.  

Dealing with the past

The omission of women from consideration of the past was starkly evident in the 2010 consultation on a 'Community, Sharing and Integration strategy. This was concerned with how divisions in Northern Irish society could be tackled and society developed along shared lines. The contribution of women to the maintenance of society during the conflict was ignored. So also was any indication that women had a role in the future development of a more peaceful society. In response, women’s groups came together and with financial support from the Community Relations Council organised events for women around the region. As a consequence, a strong and united response was put forward stating that the strategy had to be redrafted in order to acknowledge:

- that a long and violent conflict took place and is still in some aspects ongoing;

- the need to address the differential impact of the conflict on women 

- that those effects are ongoing – for example in respect of dependency upon  alcohol, prescription drugs, mental health problems etc;

 - those involved in making and drafting policy must undergo gender awareness training – including MLAs and civil servants at all levels.

- a new Cohesion, Sharing and Integration or Shared Future strategy  needs to acknowledge the role of women in conflict resolution and peace-building. It must look specifically at examples of good practice within the women’s sector:

- the definition of cohesion must be all encompassing and specifically name women and women’s groups as having contributed to the development of peace, having a place in building the peace and the need for women’s sector to be positively encouraged into public life in a post conflict situation.

There has been little meaningful response to this. While a new strategy, Together Building a United Community has been released, which mentions the existence of the Gender Equality Strategy, the reference to women is merely tokenism. The reality is that a recent conference, held in Cardiff in the summer of 2013 in order to consider contentious issues like parading and flags, had police, politicians and community representatives in attendance, and only 3 women out of more than 30 participants. Peace building is still seen as an activity that primarily involves men.

Women: Excluded and Silenced

In recent workshops held with women from across Northern Ireland, a clear message is that for some women living in Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) areas, paramilitary organisations were viewed as the main problem/threat in their communities.  Their existence has resulted in the following:

- high levels of control (through fear and intimidation)

- local women unable to speak up due to threat to property and personal security

- women (and men) and their families living in fear and silence due to the threat of reprisals

- high levels of criminality (some of it drug related).  Criminality and money emanating from criminal activity has resulted in divided and mistrustful communities.

- women do not have ‘safe spaces’ to discuss issues

Essentially paramilitary organisations (men) control significant numbers of communities in disadvantaged areas. Families on low incomes are living ‘cheek by jowl’ with prosperous neighbours involved in illegal activities.  The women did not think of the threats in relation to their own personal security but to that of their sons and grandsons.  If the women speak up, their families are in danger.

Paramilitary organisations continue to recruit and it is very difficult for women in these communities to keep young men away from paramilitary involvement. In many disadvantaged PUL areas, the absence of jobs and any aspiration for the future for young men adds to the allure of the perceived “glitz” of paramilitary activity – of ‘money and women’. The sexual exploitation of young girls is prevalent and often hidden.

For women from nationalist/republican areas control is also an issue, particularly in areas where ‘dissident’ republicans exist. The lives of women and families in some areas are blighted by high levels of anti–social behaviour and low level but persistent criminality.  It is suggested that the prevalence of anti-social behaviour has happened due to a vacuum created when paramilitary vigilantism halted and has not been yet been filled by the Police Service.  Some women living in these areas say they felt ‘safer’ during the period of the conflict.

Another clear message coming from women participating at these workshops is that there is a generation of people who lived through the trauma of the conflict who have become addicted to alcohol or prescription drugs.  Mental ill-health and legal drug misuse manifest themselves ways of many people living and coping from day-to-day and is a huge and often hidden legacy of the conflict.

Domestic and Sexual Violence

While domestic and sexual violence persists as a highly gendered problem across the globe, it is a particular and often hidden problem in societies emerging from conflict. Domestic and sexual abuse was prevalent during the conflict and much of this is only now coming to light.

 For women and girls living in Nationalist/Republican areas, reporting a crime or contacting the police was not an option during the conflict. Therefore many victims of these crimes had no recourse to support and safety.  Since the peace process, women from these areas have been encouraged to contact the police to report such crimes.

The opposite is true for women living in Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist areas where relationships with and trust in the Police Service have waned significantly.  For women who are victims of domestic and sexual violence, avenues to seek support, safety and justice are often closed. 

In both these contexts women and girls have been and are very vulnerable. Criminality (involving drugs and prostitution) has led to a huge and very worrying increase in the sexual exploitation of girls and young women in some communities.

For some men, leaving prison has been difficult in terms of adjusting to ‘normal’ life and many have turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with the pressure. Women believe this has exacerbated the problem of domestic and sexual violence.

There was a high level of consensus on the following:

- domestic and sexual violence is increasing

- sexual abuse is a major (and often hidden) issue  across communities

- sexual exploitation of young girls (often in paramilitary settings) is prevalent

- as support for the Police Service NI has increased on the Nationalist/Republican side, there is a corresponding decrease in support in some PUL communities.  This adds to the vulnerability of women and girls in these areas.

While the Haass / O’Sullivan talks are welcomed, there is a perception that women remain excluded as peace building continues to be perceived as male territory.  A clear message from women in communities throughout the north is that women have been and continue to be affected by these issues. Furthermore, they want to speak, to have an opportunity to share their views and to have their concerns incorporated into future strategies to deal with the legacy of the past. 

Read more 50.50 articles stemming from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference held in Belfast in May 2013 



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