VICTORIA WHITE: Home parents need constitutional protection now more than ever

I have wanted to write this article since I was a few hours into the care of my 18-year-old and the penny dropped with an almighty clang that caring for him was the hardest work I’d ever done.

All the racing around in suits and the summit meetings in grey boardrooms were swept away as if they were theatrical scenery. Making meaning and making money are both important but they’re not as important as rearing your child.

Nearly all parents know this. That’s probably why only 40% of women and 42% of men were in favour of deleting Article 41.2 of the Constitution in a poll published at the weekend.

Granted, the article has never succeeded in protecting women in the home. On the occasions when it has been adduced to help protect home-makers, it has failed largely because the Constitution is not law but merely a framework for law.

At least the article is there to be adduced, however. Given it is almost the only recognition anywhere of the work of the unpaid carers who support our society, I dread to see it deleted.

Of course it should be made gender-neutral. It hardly needs to be said that it makes no sense today to confine support for home care to women. But keep that support in there. That’s what the Constitutional Convention said in 2013 when 98% of participants called for the retention of the article, reformed to make it gender-neutral.

It looks like cheap politics for Fine Gael, in the form of TD Josepha Madigan , or indeed the Labour Party before the last election, to commit to deleting the article. Labour’s Ged Nash opined, “We want to remove all the remaining barriers to achieving full equality in Ireland and this is one of them.”

That is pure balderdash. Article 41.2 was never intended to confine women in their homes and according to UCG historian Caitriona Clear, Dev got annoyed when anyone suggested it did. Its insertion was inspired by the work of the US feminist Ivy Pinchbeck who wrote movingly about the conditions of young mothers in factories.

Think of working-class mother Fantine in Les Miserables if you will. How would you feel if you had to leave babies and tiny children unprotected while you worked an all-day shift to put bread in their mouths? Victor Hugo was writing from the first wave of the industrial revolution but today the questions are the same: Is a human being worth more than money and if so, how do you count that worth?

Feminists had an opportunity to affirm the importance of work which is not paid in the traditional way and to recognise those who do it. They flunked it completely. Instead most traditional feminists’ big idea in relation to women and home care is stopping them doing it. And turning them back into units of production.

Our National Women’s Council (NWCI) says Article 41.2 does “not reflect the lives of Irish women, the majority of whom are in paid employment outside the home”. Well over a third of Irish women do not work outside the home, including 44% of mothers. In all, some 70% of mothers are at home full-time or part-time. But the message is consistently given that women in the home are themselves an anachronism which will soon, God willing, be extinct.

Instead of valuing home care, NWCI sees it as a burden which falls “disproportionately” on women. This burden should be shared more by men, they cry. As if we were talking about taking out the bins, an unpleasant task which does not need to be done with the passion or joy of someone who has chosen to do it.

Last week, they addressed the Oireachtas select committee on budgetary oversight which is chaired by Josepha Madigan. They argued for “gender budgeting” to be part of the main budget process, evaluating the impact of women of every measure. On two occasions researcher Camille Loftus mentioned “a 2% tax reduction on the second income” to incentivise women out to work.

Astonishingly, given the origins of feminism, she cited the IMF, the World Bank and research by the Mc Kinsey Global Institute to buttress her claim that getting women into the workplace was important because “it feeds economic growth”.

She said Mc Kinsey reckoned $12 trillion (€10.4tn) could be generated annually by maximising women’s employment globally, equivalent of the GDPs of Germany, the UK and Japan combined.

Sweet divine God, is this where feminism has come to? Citing the World Bank which has said it does not count the unpaid work of women because it does not know how to? Fuelling economic growth in societies which can’t sustain any more and incinerating the planet while we’re at it?

TD Richard Boyd Barrett (PPP) asked if the measures referred to were about tax breaks for female CEOs of multinationals or about employing more people in the health service? The researcher explained that economic growth gave governments more “fiscal space” for progressive action.

She was probably trying to speak to the TDs in terms she thought they would understand. But she didn’t seem to see any irony in structuring the tax system so that there is more money to pay childcare workers to mind children whose mothers are increasingly forced to work outside their own homes.

Questioned searchingly about the “totally undervalued” women working at home by Sean Barrett (FG) she agreed that this work was undervalued and added that no country had worked out how to reward these women or support them at pension age.

This was an issue, she said to Deputy Barrett, “particularly for people of your wife’s generation where full-time work in the home was very much part of the experience.”

Can’t we at least try? Austria, much cited by NWCI for gender-budgeting, provides two years’ paid parental leave. We already pay carers of the elderly and disabled, it beats me why we don’t pay carers of equally needy babies and young children on a means-tested basis.

Loftus’s suggestion that the home carers’ credit provides support to home-based women refers to the derisory annual tax credit of €1,100 to those whose income is less than €7,200. If you earn €9,200 you get €100; if you earn €9,400 you get nothing. Tax individualisation can cost a single income household over €5,000 a year.

Pension rights for carers in the home were actually reduced by the last Government because, as Joan Burton said: “Those who pay more benefit more.”

The highest child benefit in Europe and the non-contributory old age pension are the last supports of the majority of mothers in Ireland who don’t work full-time outside the home. Bit by bit, their rights have been eroded: the child tax credit went first, then individualisation took away their tax shelter, now their few pension rights are cut.

Do you really think this is the moment to take away the symbolic support of the Constitution?

Sweet divine God, is this where feminism has come to? Citing the World Bank which has said it does not count the unpaid work of women because it does not know how to?


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