Elaine Loughlin: Ireland is no country to be a woman

The Mother and baby homes report continues to pay lip service to women but fails to fully listen or bring about real equality
Elaine Loughlin: Ireland is no country to be a woman

Even now, single mothers are discriminated against as detailed by this newspaper in recent months, and a marked gender pay gap still exists.

Burnreacht na hÉireann firmly puts women in their place.

Our Constitution, penned in 1937 by a hand that was tightly guided by the Catholic Church, permitted and arguably encouraged a toxic patriarchal society that locked away women and farmed out their babies.

Even now we continue to pay lip service to women but fail to fully listen or bring about real equality.

The personal histories and recollections of the survivors of mother and baby homes were recorded and transcribed as part of the Commission's work, but their painful lived experiences were discarded in the conclusions as unreliable.

In an open letter penned after the publication of the final report, Clodagh Malone chairperson of the Coalition of Mother and Baby home Survivors, said specific and detailed accounts had been provided but it was then claimed these could neither be proved nor disproved.

"Is the Commission saying they don't accept the testimonies of the 500-plus survivors who testified to the Inquiry? It certainly looks like it. What was the point in our testifying if our word was to be doubted? Our testimonies are the proof."

The Constitution states the family is the "natural primary and fundamental unit group of society" and the State recognises that "by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved".

You don't have to read between the lines to understand that in Ireland not all families were deemed equal or even acceptable.

"The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack."

Tuam Mother and Baby home survivor Carmel Larkin, listens to Taoiseach Micheál Martin in her home in Tuam, as he apologised to the women and children of mother-and-baby homes. Photo: Ray Ryan

Tuam Mother and Baby home survivor Carmel Larkin, listens to Taoiseach Micheál Martin in her home in Tuam, as he apologised to the women and children of mother-and-baby homes. Photo: Ray Ryan

Women, as second-class citizens, led the life that was prescribed for them. If they strayed from this one-dimensional role, a role that only allowed for pregnancy in marriage, they were shunned and sent away at a time of crisis. Their infants were often discarded and buried in unmarked plots, which in the case of the Bessborough mother and baby home have yet to be found.

The personal accounts of the survivors of mother and baby homes shout and scream their way out from the 2,865 pages of the Commission's final report published this week.

"You were reminded every day that you were a sinner," one woman told the Commission.

"I was told by a nun: 'God doesn't want you - you're dirt," another survivor recalled.

Another woman recounted her experience of going into labour: “I was screaming with pain, three days screaming with pain and all you got was ‘Oh you should have thought about this nine months ago ‘or ‘You have to suffer for your sins and you have got to put up with it’.”

While one woman said: "After I told my family I was pregnant after being raped I was told 'shame on you, look what you've done to Daddy'.

However, for decades these voices were silenced, and to add to this hurt they have now been met with skepticism.

The report highlighted the absence of the mothers’ voices from the time they were pregnant and making decisions about their children, as well as a "shortage of contemporary information about their lives, the circumstance of their pregnancy and the attitudes of family and putative fathers".

These details were not recorded because these lives were not deemed important, worse still, they were seen as too shameful to acknowledge.

When a girl - many of the survivors were innocent minors uneducated about sex - became pregnant she was ostracised.

Mothers and fathers saw no other option than to banish their daughters due to an unhealthy, all-consuming obsession with 'the neighbours' and a fear of what they might think.

"When an unmarried woman discovered that she was pregnant, a common response was to flee from her home or place of work in the hope of concealing her pregnancy from her family and the local community. Women who confided in one or more family members were often encouraged to leave home," the Commission found.

Pressure to keep their pregnancy a secret added to a woman’s trauma

The report notes the importance placed on a "family's standing" and a so-called "respectability" in the community.

This was compounded by the stranglehold of the Church and a fear of being admonished from the pulpit.

"An ‘illegitimate’ birth could destroy the marriage prospects, not just for the woman who had given birth, but for her siblings, hence the pressures to keep it a secret by sending her to a mother and baby home.

"Many women who concealed their pregnancy from parents or family members were conscious of such attitudes. Pressure to keep their pregnancy a secret added to a woman’s trauma," the report found.

This attitude, which permeated society and allowed mother and baby homes to flourish, existed from before the foundation of the State right the way through to the very recent past - baby Zoei Bonny, the final infant to be registered as dying in the care of Bessborough in Cork would be 26 today if she had survived.

While the Commission reviewed conditions in mother and baby homes from 1922 on, it details how Ireland remained a very cold house for women who became pregnant out of wedlock and their 'illegitimate' children.

In Ireland unmarried mothers continued to be seen as a distinct category, by the late 1960s, 90% of ‘illegitimate’ children born in Ireland were placed for adoption; the next highest rate in Europe was 35%.

In 1980, a total of 552 babies were born to women who were in mother and baby homes, which was higher than the 498 in 1950 or the 456 in 1960.

Even the status of "illegitimacy" was used to further stigmatize the thousands of children born in mother and baby homes right up until 1987 when it was finally abolished.

The world moved on, but in Ireland we stubbornly refused to change our attitudes.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Constitution in 1988, long-serving Fianna Fáil senator Michael Lanigan claimed: "Certainly there have been changes in the State in the 50 years of the Constitution but there have not been that many radical changes in people's attitudes."

Holly Cairns TD: "Ireland's history of "using shame and fear to control women and their bodies is truly horrifying in its scale and impact. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Holly Cairns TD: "Ireland's history of "using shame and fear to control women and their bodies is truly horrifying in its scale and impact. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns this week said Ireland's history of "using shame and fear to control women and their bodies is truly horrifying in its scale and impact," but she added that similar attitudes towards women endure.

Detailing her experiences of campaigning for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment in 2018, she told the Dáil: "We would knock on another door to hear: 'But if this comes in, what’s to stop the young ones' and 'What’ll stop them from sleeping around every weekend and getting an abortion every Monday?'

"It is still here and has not left us. This is the fear of girls and women and this desire to control their lives and their bodies."

The refusal of the Commission to accept the first-hand testimonies and the dismissal of some of the information so generously provided by the women and their children as "clearly incorrect", is another slap in the face to those who suffered.

The Commission's finding that women did not suffer abuse, when the survivors' raw testimony clearly shows the opposite was the case, is another example of a continuing attitude.

"There are a small number of complaints of physical abuse. The women worked but they were generally doing the sort of work that they would have done at home," the report found despite sworn affidavits of survivors being dragged down corridors, beaten, and tortured.

One woman documented being forced to scrub a floor shortly after labour, when her stitches burst, she was ordered to clean up her own blood.

Even more baffling is the conclusion that there was a "little evidence" for forced adoptions.

A baby doll and cot can be seen as a vigil is held at the Tuam Mother and Baby home mass burial site on August 25, 2019 in Tuam. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

A baby doll and cot can be seen as a vigil is held at the Tuam Mother and Baby home mass burial site on August 25, 2019 in Tuam. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The Commission “found little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers” but in the same breath accepted “that the mothers did not have much choice.” The report is littered with accounts of women being forced to sign adoption papers against their will with one woman stating: "I couldn't have signed it because, at the time, I didn't know how to read or write."

This week the women and their children have finally been given a voice, but the silence of the men involved is remarkable, where are the fathers of the 57,000 children born in the mother and baby homes investigated by the Commission?

All of this reinforces the continued disregard of vulnerable groups and a lingering misogynistic attitude that we cannot seem to shake off.

Bunreacht na hÉireann singles out women, they are "recognised" but in reality, they have not been treated as equals.

Even now, single mothers are discriminated against as detailed by this paper in recent months and a marked gender pay gap still exists.

Women are under-represented in politics, the media, theatre, science, research, and in board rooms. Female politicians are still not entitled to maternity leave.

The grip the Church once had over our minds and bodies has been prised open but Ireland is still a country run by men.

This must change.

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