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Ending the humiliation of women in Northern Ireland

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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