Feminism, consultations & sensitivity
My identity as a feminist transformed during the years of my PhD research. While I was initially a ‘closet feminist’ not because I was ashamed of my feminist positioning but because I didn’t feel the need to proclaim my identity as a feminist within the contexts that I was operating (working for multinational organizations) this transformed to being an ‘out feminist’ once I entered the university environment. My public identification with feminism escalated through my activism work on women’s issues which I undertook as a volunteer with Amnesty International and with Women’s Aid at the beginning of my study. This public stance as a feminist drew me into many debates with non-feminists (women and men) about the need for feminist activism in Ireland in the 21st century (many non-feminists would argue that women’s equality has been won so therefore feminism is now defunct). While initially my position was often defensive, as I integrated my feminist identity more fully my style of discussing and sharing my feminist position softened and became more confident.
As I became more deeply immersed in feminist circles, debates and activities my awareness of gender issues grew and my passion to shape the debate took hold. With my appointment as the coordinator of the Hanna’s House Feminist All-Ireland Peace Project in 2008 I was given a unique opportunity to facilitate meetings with diverse groups of women across Ireland to discuss the legacy of the conflict on this island, and issues such as gender based violence, women’s role in conflict resolution and peace building activities. This brought me into contact with women who had experienced conflict, particularly those living in the North and along the border counties, and who were still dealing with the aftermath of violence and its impact on their families and communities.
In 2010 I facilitated a consultation with nearly 200 women living throughout Ireland to inform the content of the first Irish National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security. This diverse group of women included asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants from war-torn countries as well as women from the north of Ireland and the border counties. Their agreement to partake in the consultation was an act of great courage as many discussed the trauma they had and often still are experiencing as a result of conflict. Their views and perspectives as well as their emotions and concerns were recorded in the report which was circulated to the Consultative Group (a committee consisting of government departments, academics, civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations, An Garda Siochana (the Irish Police Force) and the Irish Defence Forces).
There is no doubt that those two projects developed my sensitivity as a feminist researcher and made me aware of the importance of researchers having empathy and compassion for the people they work with as well as focusing on gathering accurate data and fine-tuning analytical abilities. Those projects also heightened my awareness of intersectionality and the cross-cutting positioning of women in the post-conflict moment depending on the context and individual subjectivities. For example, some of the asylum seeking women I met were highly educated and came from high-status families in Africa but were experiencing discrimination in Ireland due to their status as refugees, their race, and their economic dependence on the state. Many of the asylum seeking women who took part in the consultation voiced their frustration at not being given opportunities to use their skills and talents and feel trapped within the direct provision system within Ireland for many years unable to work and provide for themselves (they are given an allowance of €19.10 to live on per week) and unable to integrate within the local community. When asked what sustained her, one woman said she viewed the experience as a 'time to pass through' so that she and her family could ultimately live a happier and more secure life.
Throughout the process it was of utmost importance to me as a researcher and a feminist that the women I consulted with felt deeply listened to and that their concerns were heard, recorded and taken seriously. It was also important that they felt the warmth of human compassion for their suffering. The helplessness I felt, as I was unable to alleviate their situation, was tempered (only slightly) by the knowledge that their stories and experiences would be published in a consultation report and circulated to the relevant government departments to inform and influence change to national policies and action plans.
Ireland's first National Action Plan on Women, Peace & Security (2011) did include five actions which responded directly to (some of) the needs articulated by the women who took part in the consultation process, however, many more were not included. In a future blog I will discuss the outputs from those five actions and how the second national action plan builds on them. I will also discuss some of the recommendations that didn't make it into the plan and why they are important stepping stones to creating gender equality and building sustainable peace.
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