By Finola Brennen, NCCWN Donegal Women’s Network Coordinator
The Irish Government has made many commitments, drawn up many strategies and signed many obligations towards achieving women’s equality. Without a doubt some progress has been made but when you listen to women experiencing disadvantage and who find themselves marginalised, we know why the vital work of The National Collective of Community-based Women’s Network (NCCWN) is needed.
In 2010 when local Government was been reformed 17 individual women’s networks successfully lobbied Minister Carey for our autonomy and holding our focus on working with and advocating for women experiencing disadvantage and marginalisation.
The NCCWN is managed on a voluntary basis by women who have been empowered within their own communities. Last year they managed a budget of 1.3 million, directly employed a staff of 44 and indirectly employed 156 women.
While each of the 17 networks may work in different ways, what we all have in common is a shared set of values that informs WHAT we do, HOW we do it and WHY we do it. Our vision is for a just and equal society for women and underpinning our work are feminist principles.
My work has been based in Donegal a very beautiful place but alongside that beauty and ruggedness is the reality of isolation and economic deprivation which impacts hugely on the everyday lives of ordinary women.
- Predominately rural
- The majority of lone-parents, homemakers and carers are women
- It has the highest level of unemployment of all constituencies
- Highs level of emigration
- And has a very high age dependency ratio
Everyone wants to do the best for their children and their loved ones but for women who have a low income, who have a disability, are from the Traveller community, are full-time carers, or who for whatever reason have no economic independence these women know the reality of poverty and the effect this has on their health and the quality of their lives and that of their families.
Employment and Welfare
Once employment gave security and a quality of life but we now have 16% of those working, living in poverty. Women in particular are vulnerable to low wages and precarious employment with 50% of women earning €20,000 or less.
It is a fact that one parent families tend to have the lowest disposable income out of all the households in the state. In Donegal 93.5% of lone parents are women. So what is their reality?
For women living only on social welfare benefits, the week in week out drudge of living on such a low income greatly adds to their stress levels and ultimately impacts negatively on their physical and mental health.
For some women managing means no heat while the children are at school, buying everything second hand for themselves and their children, including the school uniforms. I know a number of women who cut their own hair as going to the hair dresser is a luxury they cannot afford and the word holiday is not even in their vocabulary. In rural areas it maybe the monthly trip to do the essential shopping that is their day out.
Incorporate into this picture childhood illnesses, or having a child with a disability and the consequences are unimaginable. The extra costs of attending the GP when a taxi is their only option of transport, or having to attend the hospital which could be over 40 miles away may leave the woman having to get into debt.
Lack of accessible affordable childcare especially in rural area compounds the poverty trap for lone parents with many women unable to access training or to find work.
Some women with no family support, no money for social occasions or interaction develop low self –esteem which compounds their struggle to stay healthy, for their greatest fear is, ‘What happens to my children, if I am sick?’
For women who find themselves in a domestic abusive relationship, lack of economic independence can often be the main reason why she stays. When a woman leaves the home and we know that this is the most dangerous time for women, in rural areas where transport is so difficult, it increases their risk of danger.
Ironically, it is the woman experiencing an abusive relationship that becomes homeless and dependent on the support of the frontline services as a safe haven. Legal support and advice is available through legal aid for women who cannot afford independent advice but there is an initial consultation fee of €130.00. Where does a woman with no income find this?
Cuts to home helps and people with disabilities is having a particular harrowing effect on the most vulnerable in our society. Many women find themselves alone and afraid in their homes, especially in rural areas where you may not even see the light of your neighbour’s house.
What is now been put in place as care is a time managed operation that takes away that person’s independence because it is easier to do an action than afford the less abled person the dignity and respect of doing it for themselves. There is little time to give value who they are, to chat about what is important to them. Those who are providing this service do their very best but they themselves are constrained by the system that governs.
Most women with disabilities or older women are reliant are state support and can afford to pay the transport costs for ‘getting out’ the money is kept for the trip to the Doctor or the chiropodist. In the case where wheelchair accessible transport is required this may have to come from an urban area and will be more expensive because of its exclusivity.
Lack of accessible affordable childcare is huge barrier for women seeking some economic independence. According to a major economic report commissioned by the Donegal County Childcare Committee in 2013, the annual cost of full-time childcare for a two-child family is €16, 500. Among lower income groups 56% indicated that the cost of childcare prevented them from looking for a job. Within the childcare sector over 25,000 receive less than € 11 an hour women it is just another example of the value given caring roles which predominately are women.
A different future
The work and vision of the 5050 Group which seeks to bring a gender balance to politics in Ireland and NCCWN continued work in supporting and empowering women in our community’s is therefore critical in achieving social justice and equality in Ireland.