Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Democracy, Citizenship and Participation
By Inez McCormack

Citizenship rights for women involve the right to access, and to actively participate in, the decisions which affect their lives and their communities. I am talking about "active citizenship" understood as the ability to participate in decision-making processes which are open and accountable, have fair and clear criteria, and where such rights have a statutory and enforceable base. This may seem a pipe dream at the moment, but it is at the core of the reshaping of relationships between the people and of whatever constitutional settlement is agreed on this island.

This is an approach to citizenship which understands that the language and practice of participation is the language and practice of equality and the stuff of real change. This approach also enables women to come to the debate with different identities and perspectives and to develop a common purpose, one which reflects not only an understanding of their own problems and aspirations but which also reflects the problems and aspiration of those with whom they have no daily bond, or of those with whom they profoundly disagree.

Fostering links between women in both communities in Northern Ireland and between the women in the North and the South is an important part of developing "active citizenship." However, what we don’t need is the cosmetic exercise of getting some women into the room from across borders and traditions and patting that on the head as progress. Common purpose does not require common identity. It recognises divergent identities and views as well as certain issues on which we can work together. It requires the practice of respect. Those are the fundamental components of building trust. Relationships established in that way have within them the strengths to develop in new ways and directions.

I will give you a concrete example. I am involved in a cross border/cross community project called "Women Seen and Heard." The particular focus of the project has been marginalised women’s groups examining the nature and source of their exclusion. Using a rights-based approach, the project seeks to equip the women to participate effectively and to develop models of good practice which will allow them to share in the ownership of the decision making processes which influence their lives.

The project in its structures and operation has itself been in practice an example of inclusion. To be meaningful and potent, the project had to identify those who are invisible. In addition it had to create a means of organising which gave ownership of the project, of its direction and substance, to the participants.

Hence, "Women Seen and Heard" has an advisory board of 37 women drawn from networks and women’s groups from all twelve counties within its geographical remit, as well as representatives of women from ethnic minorities, women with disabilities, lesbians, lone parents, older women, rural and urban women, Catholic and Protestant women, North and South.

The Management Committee is comprised of representatives of the four partner organisations involved with the project. The four partner organisations are:

UNISON (NI) Women’s Support Network Women Into Politics Project National Council of Women in Ireland.

The aims of the project are to:

To date, a total of 260 women’s organisations and groups have attended five fora covering the following areas: Each forum follows a similar flexible format. A checklist for organising each forum has been drawn up to ensure accessibility, representation and comfort. The project funds mini-buses, taxies and petrol allowances for car pools in those areas where the public transport is negligible. The project also organizes child care for each event.

The fora have a specific agenda which is to stimulate women into thinking about how decisions affecting their lives and their communities are taken and to inform and equip them with the tools to challenge decision-makers in relation to fairness, transparency and the application of equity standards.

However, the unique opportunity to come together from rural isolated areas North and South, or across the traditional divisions in urban areas, is creating a number of new dynamics. In the Border County areas where the project has been active, women are using the facility to network with their counterparts across the most visible divisions whether sectarian or geographic. In one incident, two women’s groups from areas only a mile apart met for the first time. Each group had been unaware that the other existed. One mile apart but with the border between them.

Another notable dynamic is the reappraisal taking place among the vast majority of women in each forum, who find themselves for the first time coming together, working with and listening to women even more marginalised than themselves - women with disabilities, women from ethnic minorities, or lesbians. The recognition of how little we all know about one another, of how difference has been manipulated and accepted as a means of creating our isolation from one another, leads to a clear awareness of the need to exercise and promote inclusion at the most basic levels of organising.

This is the practical, direct work of putting human rights into practice. It is an approach which holds that human rights are real only so far as they are owned by those who need them the most. It is not an approach based on deciding what rights the excluded may have but one that is based on enabling the practice of rights by them to tackle and dismantle their different exclusions.

The understandings that women have developed on different ways of doing business – networking and the sharing of responsibility rather than the control of position – are what we bring to this conference and to each other. It is about developing an understanding of a horizontal exercise of power. It brings to the present debate on partnership, for example, a recognition that while we can come together from different sectors, backgrounds and views to work with each other for a common purpose there needs to be a culture and context of rights in which we practice that purpose. Those who enter partnerships have different holds on power. I think part of the contribution that we can make is to develop new understandings of the exercise of power.

This means as we come into new space we need to enshrine practices and obligations within ourselves that make us open and accountable. It requires an understanding that fairness in practice is not that we are now at the table but that we constantly look to see who isn’t there; that we exercise our ownership of decision making by enabling others to share that ownership. I see it in a very visual, physical way, that any space we take we need to turn round and see who is still outside and that our job is to widen that space not to hold it for ourselves.

In the work that I do I also see how the language of rights, equality and participation demands that those who hold power translate their mystified use of language and structures into human and accessible communication. The debate on common purpose cannot even start while the thought forms and language of the powerful and the powerless meet only on the common ground of bafflement, frustration and resentment.

That holds as true for a woman with a hearing impairment in Ballymena, a community activist in Ballymun, or a refugee from domestic violence in any part of this island, trying to understand the particular humiliations of impenetrable decision-making structures which control their lives.

None of this is comfortable or easy work. In practice, a culture of rights requires of all of us an exhausting and exhaustive renewal of how and who we are. It is an international debate, but I think that the work of understanding a culture of rights as turning democratic imaginings into democratic practices is work we are already doing on this island across different kinds of borders and different kinds of communities; It is work that is contributing to the shaping of democratic relationships on the island of Ireland.

Further, a culture of rights means respecting and seriously listening to those with whom we profoundly disagree. It means opposing the denial of rights to those with whom we disagree. That is very uncomfortable and difficult. The truth is that the willingness to be uncomfortable is shown quietly and regularly by those who have suffered the most, and by those who are most marginalised.

I have sat in cold and draughty rooms, listening and watching leadership for change being put into action along with an acceptance of the responsibility that we are all part of that change. I have also sat in warm and very comfortable rooms watching and listening to the demonising of change as irresponsible; it would bring public decision making to a halt, it is argued, or those seeking change have hidden agendas. This comes from senior public servants who put their comfort in doing things the way they always have been done – through the control of position – way ahead of any acceptance that they must change how they do business. I have listened and watched different elites try to determine this debate in the context of how rights should be accorded to the powerless.

The leadership I have seen for "a culture of human and women’s rights" in practice is found in the oddest of places: When businessmen and women community activists make common cause to deliver resources through a local partnership to a community different from their own; When representatives from a human rights organisation sit round a table with low-paid women workers deep in discussion on how a ninety-year-old woman in a residential home can be helped to take a court case to establish her human right to be consulted about the possible closure of the home; When ex-prisoners groups from both communities come to a function organised by ethnic minority groups to support their demand for race relations legislation, and in the pleasure in the giving and accepting of the invitation; And most of all, in the laughter and warmth of the women in the "Women Seen and Heard" project, each contending with very different "dispossessions" and plotting vigorously with and for each other to dismantle those dispossessions.

Inez McCormack is Vice President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Regional Secretary of UNISON.

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