Sophie AUMAILLEYWhere are women’s rights 18 years post GFA?
by Sophie AUMAILLEY for Northern Ireland Foundation
22 September 2016

A discussion organised by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency at the Crescent Arts Centre debated women’s rights and opportunities in Northern Ireland, post Good Friday Agreement.

Three speakers expressed their views about progress made since the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

First, Claire Bailey MLA highlighted the needs for further development of women’s conditions.

She said that 18 years ago, she felt a real sense of hope and opportunity for Northern Ireland.

During the multi-party talks process, she witnessed the rise of women’s movements and groups, coming together to have a voice in the peace process.

However, she felt that two decades later, the Northern Ireland Executive still does not offer equal opportunity for women, and public body governance boards remain largely under-representative of women.

Also, some reports show that even if the level of overall violence has decreased since the ceasefires, domestic violence against women is still constant, she added.

According to Claire, having a female Prime Minister at the moment is a step forward, but “structure is more important than the image”.

She wondered about the real power of women to express their voices and raise their issues in public debate.

Then, Denise Wright, chairperson of Embrace, described some remaining issues post Belfast Agreement.

Her main argument was about the challenges caused by the increase in immigration.

During the 2000s, lots of women came to give birth in Ireland in order to give their child Irish citizenship, Denise remarked.

Numerous nurses from the Philippines also arrived, and the current migrants crisis weighs on immigration, she added.

Denise emphasised the difficulties in building relationships with new migrants.

Women are usually more vulnerable, relying on husbands, and are more targeted by hate crimes, she said.

Immigrants have to tackle huge barriers to integrate into society, from language to the understanding of the Northern Ireland culture and conflict, Denise added.

Fear plays an important role in hindering trust and integration, she said.

According to Denise, there is an important need to break down perceptions and impressions from the migrants and from the people of Northern Ireland.

Understanding experiences of people from other areas can help to build a more integrated society, Denise argued.

However, she remained worried about the funding of such programmes, as a lot of funding for integration in Northern Ireland is allocated to fight paramilitary groups, usually forgetting women’s issues.

Finally, Courtney Robinson, campaigner for Labour Alternative in East Belfast, presented her young expertise on social issues.

She believed that the Good Friday Agreement embodied a hope for more social equality, but resulted in the institutionalisation of sectarianism.

Courtney said that this political framework failed to analyse the underlying causes of the conflict.

Indeed, she strongly argued that poverty is the main driver of our society’s troubles.

Courtney spoke from her personal experiences, growing up in a very deprived area of East Belfast.

The level of violence may have decreased since 1998, but she considered that Northern Ireland does not present any kind of peace.

She highlighted the wide difference between having a non-violent society and a peaceful one.

Currently, peace lines and paramilitaries groups are still dividing Northern Ireland, according to Courtney.

Housing and education remain segregated, she said, and wondered about the genuine reasons for keeping young people separated.

She claimed that generations post Good Friday Agreement are crying for alternatives, but are not given voice to express it.

To conclude, she felt that current political discourses are avoiding broader discussions about wide social issues, distracted by efforts towards divisions and paramilitaries.

Her hope is to see an improvement in the political representation of young people and women in the future.

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