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To them, we are nothing but vessels

A young non-Irish woman with limited English and precarious residency status, discovered she was eight weeks pregnant as a result of what the Sunday Times have reported as a “traumatic rape.” Due to her legal status in Ireland she could not freely travel abroad in order to access an abortion so immediately applied to have a termination in Ireland under the new legislation, stating that she was suicidal at the prospect of carrying the foetus to term. Like Savita Halappanavar and Bimbo Onanuga, she is another woman from outside of Ireland who has been completely failed by the Irish medical system.

Three doctors declared that the woman was suicidal under the panel formed under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in January. The legislation states that medical practitioners may authorise an abortion where “there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the pregnant woman’s life from a physical illness or by way of suicide” but they must have “regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable.” The Act does not set out timelines during which decisions should be made by these panels, or when abortions should be performed if granted under this law. To insert a timeline in that law, giving the applicant some clarity, would have been too generous a gift for the women of Ireland by the Irish government. The panel of three doctors said that despite the fact she was suicidal, it would be better to wait until the foetus was viable for delivery instead of performing an abortion. She went on hunger and liquid strike in response. People do not enter in to hunger strike lightly; It is a last resort attempt by people seeking redress when the politics of despair have left them with nothing else to fight with but their own bodies.

The HSE in turn, sought an emergency order at the High Court on the 2nd of August which would allow it to forcibly hydrate the woman on the grounds that they wanted to protect her life and the life of the foetus which she did not wish to carry. It further sought orders that would allow them to carry out other procedures related to her pregnancy. The woman was represented by her lawyers, and the foetus was also represented by its own legal team. The Irish courts have already stated that it is a medical practitioner who is entitled to make decisions concerning the pregnancy, and not the woman herself. The law goes far beyond preventing a pregnant woman from having an abortion in circumstances where her life is not at risk. The Irish law is designed so that a person who is pregnant no longer has any say over what happens their body whether it concerns continuing the pregnancy itself, the location in which you wish to give birth or whether you will hydrate yourself or not.

Last month in Geneva, the chair of the UN Human Rights Committee said that Irish law on abortion treats women as a “vessel and nothing more.” Once you are pregnant in Ireland, you become property of the state and your own wishes are irrelevant.

On the 3rd of August, this young, suicidal rape victim, having gone through two court hearings seeking an abortion and an unknown number of medical interrogations by a panel of three doctors, underwent a caesarean section in an Irish hospital at approximately 24-26 weeks gestation. Preserving human life as far as practicable in their eyes required performing a c-section on a woman while she was around six months pregnant, despite the fact that she had been raped, was suicidal, had gone on hunger and thirst strike and had asked for an abortion repeatedly from eight weeks on.

The implications of this are horrifying. It has sent a clear message to women in Ireland that if you are suicidal and seek an abortion which you are constitutionally entitled to, you run the risk of medical practitioners compelling you to wait until the foetus is viable and then having a c-section forcibly performed on you. This woman was in a very vulnerable position given the multiple traumas she had endured. It is the stuff of nightmares. There are other women who are suicidal as a result of pregnancy and access abortion services because they have the means and support to travel. Some contact Women on Web and some contract the Abortion Support Network. Some will borrow money from friends. Those who don’t have internet or phone access to make appointments or ability to leave the country, or money to pay, and will take other steps. Some will borrow from money-lenders, others might throw themselves down stairs. But those who are pregnant and suicidal will not go to these panels, the risk is too great.

We do not know the full facts of this particular case because the media are restricted from reporting in full. However, we do know that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act has not resolved the issue of not being able to access an abortion even if you are suicidal in Ireland. Three doctors said this woman was suicidal, but apparently this was not the right kind of suicidal for the purposes of the Act, and because a c-section was available then she could have that instead of a lawful termination.

It begs the question of what type of ‘suicidal’ will allow you to have a legal abortion in this jurisdiction and as long as the Eighth Amendment remains in the Constitution, there will be women travelling, dying and undergoing forced c-sections for want of an abortion within Ireland. There is no clarity as to what the scope of “practicable” actions are in order to prevent a woman from having an abortion under the cloak of “protecting the life of the unborn.”

Years ago, I had a conversation on facebook with someone who was anti-choice and was quite forthright in his views that women should be prevented from having abortions at all costs, even if they were suicidal and it required locking them up in specially designed pregnancy gulags under 24 hour suicide watch. It is a frightening vista but not totally unrealistic. Those on the anti-choice side will of course say the term “gulag” is hysterical, but if you were a pregnant suicidal rape victim, who wanted an abortion, and was in hospital on a court-ordered drip having an effectively forced c-section under threat of a court order, faced with the prospect of a 14 year jail sentence if you induce your own miscarriage, it just might feel pretty gulag-esque. You just might even etch “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” on a wall.

To them, we are nothing but vessels.

Repeal the 8th.

Journalists’ Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem

Guest post by Matthias Lehmann

More often than not, advocacy for sex workers’ rights and the acceptance of sex work as work puts one at odds with members of that part of the anti-human trafficking movement that rejects these ideas, considers prostitution as inherently harmful, and brands anyone disagreeing with them as a member of some imaginary pimp lobby. Another group one finds oneself at odds with are journalists who report about – and, like the former, conflate – human trafficking and prostitution, as their articles frequently include false, inaccurate or misrepresented information.

Chimpanzee Typing - Image by New York Zoological Society (1907)

As sex workers and their allies will confirm, one could easily spend all day writing rebuttals to counter the influence on public opinion of the many sensationalist reports, but one has to pick and choose. The following is a response to Kyla Ryan’s article “Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem” in The Diplomat. Before I start, however, I would like to state that I am not an expert on the situation in Cambodia, although I previously conducted research and field work in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. I can read, however, and my rebuttal of Kyla Ryan’s article will for the most part analyse one of the very sources she used in writing her article.

Far, very far indeed, be it from me to deny that children are being sexually exploited and, as German politician and human rights activist Volker Beck once put it, “every trafficking victim is one too many”.

However, a quick glance at the source of Kyla Ryan’s alarming statements, a report by ECPAT-Cambodia, reveals that what she should have focused on is the rape of children in settings that are not related to human trafficking.

Let’s look at the data and let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the research conducted is methodologically sound and all of the findings accurate.

Rape

The report by ECPAT-Cambodia states that in 2011, “658 cases of rape were referred to the 33 participating NGOs, involving 671 victims”, 483 of whom were minors (71.5%).  While about half of these 483 victims were teenagers, 169 were aged between 7-12 (35%) and 77 between 1-6 (16%).

The report continues to state that the next highest age group, those aged 18-25, which ECPAT labels as ”young people”, accounted for the majority of adult victims, meaning that grouped together, victims aged 0-25 accounted for 90.5%.

I am not going to dismiss the fact that such an overwhelming majority of rape victims was rather young or even very young, but one should not overlook the fact that ECPAT-Cambodia labels youth here as “children” and adults as “young people”. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see that the organisation’s self-interest plays a role here, regardless of how honourable its goals might be. The report does emphasise that “the majority of victims (approximately 1 in 3) were in the 13-17 years age group”, but I’ll come back to that later.

The report found that, “consistent with all previous Database Annual Reports”, “rape offenders in Cambodia are generally not total strangers to the victims, and usually know the victim fairly well”. The report suggests “that police and judicial investigations, as well as authorities and NGOs, should consider parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from rape”.

In the year 2011, 98.8% of the offenders were Khmer, with 0.9% foreign and 0.2% Cham/Muslim. (No further details are provided.) The total number of offenders was 770, therefore, the 0.9% correspond to 7 foreign offenders (rounded up) in the cases referred to the participating NGOs.

Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation

Looking at the data about trafficking reveals that in 2011, “71 cases of sexual trafficking were referred to the participating NGOs, involving 88 victims”, 66 of whom were minors (75%). While 55 of these 66 were teenagers, 10 were aged between 7-12 (15.2%) and 1 was aged between 1-6 (1.5%).

The report continues to state that “the number of child victims in the very young age groups of 1-6 years and 7-12 years was relatively high, with nearly 17% of the total child victims belonging to these two age groups”. As above, the report also states that, when grouping victims aged 0-25 together, they accounted for 92%.

Once again, every trafficking victim is one too many and I am not going to dismiss the fact that 11 children under 12 years of age were trafficked for sexual exploitation. One should not overlook the fact, however, that in the text of the report, ECPAT-Cambodia uses percentages rather than the number of cases and again joins age groups together, since, obviously, 17% is a more useful number than 11 to raise awareness – and funds! – and the same goes for anything in the 90% range.

The report does not provide details on the offenders who exploited the trafficking victims as customers but only on the 76 recruiters involved in the 71 cases.

Again, the report found that, “consistent, in general terms, with all previous Database Annual Reports”, “recruiters of sexual trafficking in Cambodia are generally not total strangers to the victims, and usually knew the victim fairly well” and suggests that “police and judicial investigations, as well as authorities and NGOs, should consider parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from sexual trafficking”.

Listing percentages only, the report states 50% of the recruiters were Khmer, 10.5% Vietnamese, 7.9% Thai, Other Asian 5.3%, European 10.5%, and American 3.9%. The report states that “there is limited consistency across the years in regards to the nationality of recruiters” and that “it is too soon to determine whether the drastic increase in European/American recruiters in 2011 constitutes a new trend”.

Granted, a combined 14.4% for European and American recruiters is quite a marked increase from 0% the year before. Once again, the use of percentages is somewhat conspicuous, however. Converted into actual numbers, the 14.4% correspond to ten recruiters/traffickers. All foreign recruiters listed in the table accounted for 38.1% or 29 recruiters/traffickers.

It is interesting to note that in 2011, 51.6% (or 39) of the recruiters/traffickers were female, while 48.4% (or 37) were male.

Misrepresenting the Problems

Let’s look at Kyla Ryan’s article at The Diplomat then.

Ryan (or her editor) chose as the headline “Cambodia’s Ongoing Human Trafficking Problem”, when in fact, the ratio of rape to trafficking victims in Cambodia in 2011 was roughly 7.5:1 (671:88), at least according to the very source Ryan’s article is based on.

The byline states that “the country still sees a trade in girls as young as five years old”. While that may be true, the report this statement is based on lists a single victim aged 1-6 years old and doesn’t actually reveal the gender of the two-year-old victim.

Speaking of gender: nearly 20% of the overall trafficking victims in 2011 – the report doesn’t provide figures broken down by age groups – were male, and the report does state that the “data is a reminder that boys and men are also victims of sexual abuse and exploitation … although this may often be contrary to popular belief”. Articles such as Ryan’s are one of the main reasons why such popular beliefs exist.

Ryan is also guilty of perpetuating the common “male foreign perpetrator, female local victim” paradigm when she writes that Phnom Penh is “where foreign men come to seek sex with young girls”. While I cannot deny that men, foreign or local, may seek sex with young girls, the data on which Ryan bases her article says nothing at all about foreign men who bought sex from young girls. Instead, the report does say a lot about rape, but Ryan chooses to mention rape only in connection to brothels. The only foreigners mentioned in the report are the 29 recruiters/traffickers in 2011, eleven of which were European or American.

While Ryan does allude to the “complicated” situation where family members are involved in human trafficking, she curiously writes that “many young girls are not forced into the trade by criminals, but by family members”. I never knew that being a family member and being a criminal were mutually exclusive. One may disagree with me here, but it appears that Ryan prefers to blame “foreign men” for the crime, with family members merely being complicit in it.

Nobody should dismiss or trivialise sexual violence against children, youth, young adults, or adults in general. My issue with articles such as the one by Kyla Ryan is that they misrepresent the problems and fuel the rampant, and harmful, anti-trafficking panic while largely ignoring the actual problems.

Ryan fails to mention the fraudulent and exploitative activities of Somaly Mam – her organisation AFESIP was one of the NGOs contributing to the ECPAT-Cambodia report – and the underlying problem that more often than not, only lurid stories make for effective fundraising for anti-trafficking organisations, a problem which also seems to affect the way ECPAT-Cambodia wrote its report. Ryan also leaves out ECPAT-Cambodia’s recommendation to give greater consideration to “parental and neighborhood relations as key elements in preventing and protecting children (and adults) from sexual trafficking”. I must assume it didn’t fit into the narrative she wanted to engage in.

The report by ECPAT-Cambodia states that 1 in 3 rape victims and 2 in 3 trafficking victims were in the 13-17 years age group. Where rape was concerned, all offenders were male and nearly all were Khmer, but where trafficking was concerned, a slight majority was female and the majority was Khmer, though 38.1% (or 29 people) were foreign.

To summarise: according to ECPAT-Cambodia’s report, the bigger problem in Cambodia is rape, not trafficking; the main victims of both rape and trafficking are youth aged 13-17; and the offenders are overwhelmingly locals – where rape is concerned this is entirely the case, and where trafficking is concerned they comprise the majority.

Kyla Ryan’s article paints another picture. “Read The Diplomat, know the Asia-Pacific?” Hardly.

Epilogue

I said above that for argument’s sake, I would assume that the report by ECPAT-Cambodia is accurate, but I strongly recommend anyone truly interested in the subject to read further, because regardless of its wording or use of percentages, the report does provide a number of interesting facts, e.g. who was classified as recruiter/trafficker – included were owners or employees of brothels or massage parlours – or the reasons why “92% of victims agreed to go with the recruiter” – 29.2% stated they “wanted money to buy things” – or that “the majority knowingly entered sex work”. Admittedly, 42.1% said they were promised other occupations and then forced into sex work. One mustn’t discount, however, that some respondents might well have hesitated to admit they knowingly entered sex work, for fear of the stigmatisation they would face as a result of that. By suggesting that, I certainly do not mean to dismiss any actual cases of sexual exploitation. But equally, one must not ignore that due to the stigma attached to sex work, people selling sex frequently experience discrimination and violence, which even extends to their children and other family members, exacerbating their health risks and isolation and depriving them of their basic human rights.

Matthias Lehmann is a doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast. His prior research and field work dealt with human trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-region and human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. His current research focuses on prostitution legislation in Germany. His blogs can be found here and here.

Tesco and the myth of corporate social responsibility

Tesco’s latest charity drive aroused controversy on social media this week after giving customers small blue tokens for each purchase that they could then place in one of three clear boxes for a charity . Every six weeks the Tesco branch will divide €1,000 between the three charities according to how many blue tokens they have in their pot. The idea is nice; you can buy over-packaged food and some local group will benefit from your hardening arteries. Each branch of Tesco was allowed to pick the charities, and that women’s refuges received less money than animal sanctuaries as a result of consumer’s choices caused a bit of a stir.

It won’t come as a shock to anyone who has had even the slightest interaction with liberal types, that it’s fairly common that people give charitable donations to animals before people in need. It’s also fairly common for people to look at this type of scenario and say “Well at least there was a women’s refuge you could donate to” in the range of the deserving poor according to Tesco – and this post does not aim to condemn the people who hold that view. In a climate where the state is engaged in a mission to complete the wholesale abandonment of service provision to people in need, organisations will step in. The organisations who have stepped in to provide services were the state has failed, require funding, and it is very difficult for the people running them to refuse money where it is going spare. That’s not to say that NGOs and service providers should accept donations from any old capitalist multinational regardless of where it comes from or how it’s raised, merely to acknowledge that principles are all very well and good when you can afford to have them.

And while I’m deeply suspicious of people who campaign for the rescue of dogs in the streets before, say, looking for housing for homeless humans in the streets, there is a more important discussion to be had here, and that concerns the absolute myth of corporate social responsibility, and the belief in the idea that charity will solve the social ills of the world when in many cases the reality is that its continued existence doesn’t do anything but further exacerbate those ills. I hold my hands up and say I don’t have the answers to any of this (apart from smash capitalism and patriarchy obviously). Charitable endeavours much of the time are a sticking plaster for the injurious nature of capitalism. Yes, they hold people together, but dependence on state funding very often results in gagging them from articulating just how bad things really are.

Tesco may like to seem nice and cuddly because they are big outfit and they donate money to a women’s refuge, but we as a community need to acknowledge that the women’s refuge needs money because the state will not provide it in the first place. Putting aside for the moment another long but necessary discussion bemoaning the fact that we wouldn’t need women’s refuges if men would keep their fists to themselves, the state will not provide the funding needed, partially because corporations will not pay large sums in corporation tax which could be funnelled in to service provision. Many women are forced for to remain in situations of domestic violence simply because they cannot afford to leave. Poor women find it more difficult to escape domestic violence and I would be willing to put money on the fact that there have been people employed by Tesco sheltered in women’s refuges before – they only pay €9 per hour to their customer assistants, just above the legal minimum wage in the state. Perhaps if women were paid a little bit better, they would have more options other than underfunded domestic violence shelters when leaving abusive relationships.

Which children’s charity will criticise Tesco for making it cheaper to feed children rubbish high-sugar food when it could potentially one day be Tesco’s charity of the year? NGOs are regularly prevented from being overly critical of governments when they depend on state agencies and statutory bodies for funding to do their work. When state funding is becoming thinner and thinner on the ground, corporate social responsibility philanthropic programmes will inevitably make it more difficult for organisations to criticise the actions of businesses that make their existence necessary in the first place.

The Tesco website has a statement on corporate responsibility:

“As Ireland’s leading retailer, our stores serve a large number of communities throughout the country. Our interaction with these communities reminds us daily about our responsibilities as an employer, as a business and as a good neighbour…”

Of course, we know this is nonsense. Capitalist companies having corporate social responsibility because they care about the communities in which they are located, is a myth. As this Forbes piece shows, corporate social responsibility in the form of charitable donations is useful for businesses because it means more profits. Business energy efficiency = lower energy costs = increased profits. The caring business is a complete fallacy.

The Forbes article also describes how New Perimeter are a nonprofit law firm established by DLA Piper providing pro bono legal assistance in developing and post-conflict regions. What Forbes left out, is that DLA piper entered a partnership with Brazilian law firm Campos Mellos Advogados in 2010, who handled and encouraged Brazilian real estate deals for the building of infrastructure for the World Cup 2014. The same World Cup where the building of infrastructure necessary for it to take place left 250,000 people homeless.  DLA Piper and Campos Mellos Advogados have also sent lawyers to Israel to encourage and promote commercial ties with Israel. So DLA Piper staff donate their time to New Perimeter and get to feel warm and fuzzy on the inside while their paid employment is to perpetuate other people’s misery. Caring corporate social responsibility does not exist.

After protests during the past few weeks across Ireland calling for an end to the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip, Tesco announced that it would no longer stock fruit that came from illegal Israeli settlements. However Tesco has failed to clarify how it is going to differentiate between food from illegal Israeli settlements, and food from outside of them, or whether their boycott will extend to food packaged in illegal settlements but not necessarily grown there. It is a far cry from the BDS campaign that calls for a boycott of all Israeli products until Israel upholds international law. Tesco has form when it comes to being sketchy as to where supplies come from, but it got the nice headlines about Israeli fruit and got to talk about their responsibilities as an employer and neighbour at a time when they knew it was politically popular to do so, while still actually stocking Israeli produce.

So Tesco in Cabra might donate €300 to a women’s refuge in a few weeks, but will probably continue to stock Israeli produce and profit from the violation of rights of people in Palestine, and the actual murder of Palestinian women in Gaza.

Businesses engage in PR exercises that present a facade of social responsibility when their actual business practices are wildly different to what they portray, but it makes liberals feel good about their engagement with capitalism. Buy more stuff. Put another blue token in the box. Save a puppy, and so on. When the motive of an action is profit, there can be no such thing as corporate responsibility, it merely serves to legitimise neo-liberal economics and exploitation, and a few bob to the local women’s refuge won’t change the fact that it capitalism contributes to the need for funding for refuges in the first place.


Who is most at risk due to ‘Care’ in our Maternity services?

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Originally posted on Activism and Agitation:

We know that our maternity services are dangerously under staffed, we know there are no national polices for screening and there are other national policies which are also  lacking. It is not just a case of doctors differ and patients die, it is that depending on where you are in the country, the level of ‘Care’ and the consistency of ‘Care’ varies greatly, even in the same units but from week day to weekend.

But it varies even more so if you are woman who is from a minority in Ireland, this has been born out by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Centre Severe Maternal Morbidity Report 2011


As Sinéad Redmond   a maternity rights activist and an AIMS Ireland committee member said

“This is a link to the National Perinatal Epidemiology Centre Severe Maternal Morbidity Report 2011. Page 10 points out that maternal morbidity (severe maternal medical complications occurring during…

View original 250 more words

Sex workers are still targeted under the racist Swedish model

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Last week, an appeals court in Sweden upheld a decision in favour of a tavern owner and security staff who had denied entry on three separate occasions to Asian-looking women. The tavern admitted judging these women by their appearance, but said they had barred them in order to prevent prostitution from taking place on their premises. Police had told the tavern owner that this was going on, and that Asian women were involved. These particular Asian women weren’t though, and they brought a discrimination claim.

The women lost in the lower court, and then lost again on appeal. According to my best Google Translate, the appellate court found that preventing prostitution is an “inherently legitimate reason” which justifies the means that was taken by the tavern, even though the effect was to bar women from their premises who had done nothing more than appear to be Asian. That’s not unlawful discrimination, according to the Swedish courts.

There are a couple things going on here. First, of course, there’s the blatantly racist nature of the policy, now formally endorsed and legitimated by a Swedish judiciary which sees nothing wrong with singling out women of colour for whore stigma. It’s not particularly surprising that racialised women would bear the brunt of a policy aimed at a migrant-dominated industry, but the court’s seal of approval institutionalises racism within Official Sweden’s zero tolerance approach. Of such a priority is the Swedish state’s war against sex work that all else can be thrown by the wayside, even principles ordinarily regarded as pretty fucking basic in a supposedly advanced democracy.

The second thing is that this decision exposes the lie that the Swedish law is not about targeting sex workers. Of course it is. They may not be targeted for prosecution, but the Swedish authorities are more than happy to go after them with any other means at their disposal. They go after them with immigration laws, with the power to refuse them custody of their children; they stake out their homes. They have already involved non-state actors in their war, as when they train hotel staff to monitor the habits of female guests; now, it seems, other branches of the service sector are also being drafted into the Prohibitionist Army. Whose policy seems to be one of “shoot first, ask questions later”.

I don’t think there’s much risk of a similar court judgment in Ireland, even should the Swedish model be adopted here. Our Equal Status Act does allow for denial of services where it is believed that serving the person would give rise to a substantial risk of criminal activity, but “discriminatory grounds” are specifically excluded as a valid basis for that belief.  The reason for that exclusion is so that pubs and shops and hotels cannot cite criminality by some Irish Travellers as a reason to deny entry to all of them, so it’s rather unlikely that the courts would allow use of a similar justification to bar all women from ethnic backgrounds popularly associated with prostitution.

But what the Equal Status Act says and what actually happens in pubs and shops and hotels are two different things. And just as Travellers are, in fact, routinely denied entry on discriminatory grounds in spite of the law, women who are seen as being “high risk” for prostitution because of their racial appearance could well find themselves being subjected to a de facto discrimination door policy. This is particularly likely to happen if the law creates “an offence of recklessly permitting a premises to be used for the purposes of prostitution”, as recommended by the Oireachtas Justice Committee and supported by the Turn Off the Red Light campaign and its member organisations, several of which operate in the migrant advocacy sector. If this law is passed and migrant women become collateral damage in the Irish war against sex work, as they have in the Swedish and Norwegian wars, will these groups also shrug it off as an “inherently legitimate reason”?

No country for young women: Honour crimes and infanticide in Ireland

magdalene

When I was in first year in secondary school in 1997, a girl in the year above me was pregnant. She was 14. The only people who I ever heard say anything negative about her were a group of older girls who wore their tiny feet “pro-life” pins on their uniforms with pride. They slagged her behind her back, and said she would be a bad mother. They positioned themselves as the morally superior ones who cared for the baby, but not the unmarried mother. They are the remnants of an Ireland, a quasi-clerical fascist state, that we’d like to believe is in the past, but still lingers on.

The news broke last week of a septic tank filled with the remains of 796 children and babies in Galway. The remains were accumulated from the years 1925 to 1961 and a common cause of death was malnutrition and preventable disease. The Bon Secours “Home” had housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their children down through the years. These women had violated the honour of their communities, by bringing shame on their families through “illegitimate” pregnancy and therefore had to be hidden at all costs, and punished for their transgressions. The children died as they lived, discarded like the refuse of society that the Church considered them and the mothers that gave birth to them to be. Most of the children who survived were put to work in industrial schools under the supervision of perverts and sadists.

Thousands of the healthy ones were sold abroad – mostly to the US –  for “adoption.” For the ones who remained, the outlook was poor. Mortality rates of 50% or 60% were common in these homes.  In the case of  the ones that died, either the Church did not feel they were valuable enough to feed and care for, or they actively worked towards their death. The risk they posed to the social order by virtue of the circumstances of their conception and birth was too great to let go unchecked. These children certainly did not die for lack of money or resources on the Church’s part (they had an income from the children they sold), and the fewer children of this kind there were, the less threat there was to the church’s control over society.

If the Church had allowed them to grow up to be functioning adults in Irish society it would have ran the risk of demonstrating that the institution of marriage was not absolutely integral to the moral well-being of a person. Women were not allowed keep their babies because the shame that their existence brought upon the community would be far too great. They were imprisoned within Magdalene Laundries to atone for their sins of honour, and their babies were removed from them as part of their punishment – women who dishonoured the community were deemed to unfit to parent.

Contemporary Ireland feigned shock when stories of the Laundries and residential institutions emerged. Perhaps the shock of those who were too young to be threatened with being put in one for “acting up” was genuine, because the institutions started to close as the years went on. But people in their fifties and sixties now, will remember how the “Home Babies” sometimes came to schools, and were isolated by other (legitimate) children, and then sometimes never came back. While those school-children may not have comprehended fully the extent of what happened, their parents and teachers, and the community of adults surrounding them knew.

Ireland as a whole was complicit in the deaths of these children, and in the honour crimes against the women. They were the “illegitimate babies” born to the “fallen women” who literally disappeared from villages and towns across Ireland in to Magdalene Laundries. Everybody knew, but nobody said, “Honour must be restored. We must keep the family’s good name.”

The women themselves served a dual purpose in the Laundries. They were a warning to others what happened when you violated the rule of the Church, and they were financial assets engaged in hard labour on behalf of the Church. They were not waged workers; they did not receive payment. They could not leave of their own free will, and their families, for the most part, did not come for them; the shame on the family would be too great. Ireland had a structure it used to imprison women for being sexual beings, for being rape victims, for not being the pure idolised incubator for patriarchy, for not having enough feminine integrity, or for being simply too pretty for the local priest’s liking. Ireland has a long tradition of pathologising difference.

People did know what went on in those institutions. Their threat loomed large over the women of Ireland for decades. On rare occasions when people attempted to speak out, they were silenced, because the restoration of honour requires the complicity of the community. Fear of what other people will think of the family is embedded in Irish culture.

The concept of honour means different things in different cultures but a common thread is that it can be broken but restored through punishing those who break it. We are familiar with the hegemonic concepts of “honour killing” and “honour crimes” as a named form of violence against women in cultures other than ours. The papers tell us it is not something that people do in the West. Honour killings, and honour crimes are perpetually drawn along racialised lines and Irish and UK media happily present them within the context of a myth of moral superiority.

Honour crimes are acts of domestic violence, acts of punishment, by other individuals – sometimes family, sometimes authorities – for either real or perceived transgressions against the community code of honour. However, it is only when there is a woman wearing a hijaab or a the woman is a person of colour, or ethnicised, that “honour” is actually named as a motivation for the act of violence.  It is a term that has been exoticised, but it is not the act itself or the location it occurs, but the motivation behind it that is important in defining it.

Women of colour, and Muslim women, are constructed as the “other;” we are told these women are given in marriage at a young age by controlling fathers who pass on the responsibility for controlling them to husbands. “Protection” of women is maintained through a rigid sytem of controlling their sexuality in a framework of honour and shame. When these women transgress the boundaries of acceptable femininity they are abused and shunned by their community. Punishments range from lashing to death, but include physical beatings, kidnappings and imprisonment.

Imprisoning women in the Magdalene Laundries deserves to be named as an honour crime because of a cultural obsession that believed the family’s good name rested upon a woman’s (perceived) sexual activity that either her father or husband or oldest brother was the caretaker of. Her sentence to the Laundry was to restore the family honour.

Recently a friend of mine tweeted when the verdict was returned in the murder trial of Robert Corbet. Corbet was convicted of murdering Aoife Phelan, a woman from Laois he had been seeing, who told him she was pregnant. He hit her, then strangled her, then fearing that she was not actually dead, he put a black bag over her head and fixed it with two cable ties and buried her in a barrel on the family homestead. The next day he got on a plane to New York to meet his ex-girlfriend to attempt to repair their relationship. My friend had outlined the case and on twitter referred to Robert Corbet attempting to have a “dirty weekend away” in New York.

Following this, my friend received unsolicited mail to her facebook account, from a person claiming to be the cousin of Robert Corbet’s ex-girlfriend saying: “….how dare you say a dirty weekend in new york and speak about my cousin who is his ex girlfriend like that . you don’t know what happened when he went over or why he went over you don’t know my cousin so how dare you say that it was a dirty weekend away.”

The point of mentioning this is certainly not to make anything of Corbet’s ex’s character or actions, but his intentions after he killed a woman, as well as the the mentality of the person who sent this mail. That message is a symptom of rural Ireland’s chronic obsession with shame and the keeping of a person’s “good name” at all costs; a stranger made a post on the internet about a man’s probable intentions after murdering a woman, and someone else’s immediate reaction is not to read what she said concerning the murder of a woman, but to attest to the moral purity of her cousin. There is something very wrong with that.

There was something wrong in Listowel when a parish priest gave a character reference for Danny Foley, a man convicted of sexual assault, whose victim was refused service afterwards in bars and shops. When the verdict was returned, fifty people (mostly middle-aged men) formed a queue in the courthouse to shake the hand of Danny Foley. Journalists happily took quotes from locals saying what a shame it was, as this wasn’t his character; he was a good man, from a good family. The victim did not matter. The priest said of her, “Well she has a child you know, and that doesn’t look good.” John B. Keane wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

We have not come so far from the Magdalene Laundries. Robert Corbet initially lied to the guards about where he had buried Aoife Phelan because he “wanted to protect the family home place.” The need to keep the family name intact is embedded in Ireland so much, that there are even other women happy to be complicit with, and benefit from patriarchy. They are the girls in my school who wore their “pro-life” feet pins (one of them is now a doctor I am told). They are the women who shook Danny Foley’s hand. They are the women who condemn other women for doing things that would have landed them in a Magdalene Laundry a few decades earlier. Let nobody question their honour.

Irish culture has had a traditional focus on eradicating troublesome women and their offspring. For years unmarried pregnant women were punished and hidden away in homes. Women who need abortions travel in silence to have them in secret in England, or they have secret home abortions here. Government ministers actively engage in policies that make it more difficult to be a single mother, and to speak out against it is deemed immoral and not of value to the community. A person sending unsolicited emails to a person concerning a third party’s moral purity, and then publicly tweeting in relation to it demonstrates her own value to the community by positioning the importance of women’s role in public morality above that of the murder of an individual woman – a woman who was buried in a barrel to protect the family home.

We are told to be silent and not talk about things. Difference, and naming difference in Ireland is pathologised. Even those who are meant to be the good guys are not exempt from the cultural effect of this. Women when they are abused in activism or online are told not to retaliate. We are called “toxic and hostile” for having the audacity to name misogynist abuse where we see it.  We get death threats for speaking out about abortion. But we are told to “be kind” at all costs. When people abuse victims of domestic violence online, we are told to leave their abusers alone. Women must never appear to be angry. We must be nice to those who abuse us. We must be always nice no matter the cost to us; we must not bring shame upon the community.

This is not so far away from the mentality that locked women up in homes and threw children in septic tanks to be forgotten. It absolutely depended on complicity of wider society. It could not have existed without the collaboration of the whole community; the teachers; the priests; the nuns; the people that ran the undertakers; the local councillors; the people who brought the laundry to the nuns; perhaps your grandmother who cuddled you to sleep at night.

We are told it was a different time, and things are different now.

Youth Defence still sell their pins online. Joan Burton continues her crusade to paint single mothers as lazy and worthless. National newspapers will freely print opinion pieces denigrating them. 796 dead children will get a memorial but no one will be held to account for their deaths. Those who ask for it will be told to be kind. The religious orders who put them in a septic tank will continue unquestioned. Those who put the women in Magdalene Laundries will continue to work for “fallen women”. Women will be denied control over their own bodies. They will die for the want of medical care.

It must be so. To do otherwise, would bring shame on the family. But when we look the other way, and allow the lie that we live in a modern progressive democracy to breathe, we allow our authoritarian Catholic past to continue to cast its shadow.

#YesAllWomen: What difference does it make?

Finola Meredith has a piece in The Irish Times today bemoaning the #yesallwomen hashtag on twitter. When I saw the headline “The Twitter surge #YesAllWomen is a useless weapon against endemic misogyny” I laughed. What’s a better weapon? An Irish Times feature with a Breda O’Brien riposte the following day?

May the liberal force of Fintan O’Toole be strong in you, Irish Times Columnists.

Meredith’s issue with the hashtag is that she believes that tweeting that is about as useful as going outside in the street and shouting “sexist men are bastards” and it will make no difference. Tempted as I am to go and stand outside Coppers this Saturday night to disprove her point (Just imagine the real life “NOT ALL MEN!!” screams you’d hear afterwards), there is an important point hidden in here concerning major media outlets that dominate, such as The Irish Times, who have a role in shaping political discourse; as John Waters has said before, he does not write for an online audience, which he has referred to as the “lurking mob.” The reason people like John Waters don’t like social media, and other writers perpetually undermine it, is because twitter and social media platforms are a bit too democratic for their liking. They don’t get to dictate the content, or delete the straight-up unpalatable, or too-critical-of-government/themelves comments afterwards.

Dismissing and undermining those who take to twitter, positions those who are lucky enough to get an opinion piece in a broadsheet as being the only ones capable of articulating the voice of those who are oppressed. Opening up the prospect of an individual having the ability to coherently narrate their own oppression would compromise the legitimacy of the mainstream media approved writer’s position as The Harbinger of Official Truth, which opens up questions about the mainstream media’s role in the replication of oppressions.

Meredith states that “…it’s true that there’s barely a woman alive who couldn’t come up with an example of sexist behaviour she has encountered…we could all add something to this list…” but then later goes on to say that there is an issue with the hashtag’s “authenticity” asking “how do we know they are telling the truth?”

Right. So we can really all add something to the #yesallwomen list, but writers in turn will take to the national press to question whether in fact, we are actually just making it all up in the first place.

For the benefit of the (paper of) record – we are not.

This action is exactly the type of “ancient urge to shut women up” or “to silence them completely” that Meredith bemoans in her opinion piece  – which will have a readership of thousands. If a woman cannot publicly tweet her experience of being groped without her truthfulness being questioned, then what makes people think she could report if she was raped or beaten.

It’s a silencing wolf dressed in feminist’s clothing.

Meredith believes that unless these campaigns are sustained and developed, they are useless. For a start, #YesAllWomen started last week. Give us a chance. It had 250,000 tweets in the first 24 hours – that’s far more people than will ever read a single Irish Times column. Women who may never have considered the connection between the microagressions we suffer, misogyny, and patriarchal society read and participated in those tweets.

They are seeing the connections between the unwanted hand on your arse in a nightclub that other men condone, and the man who murders a woman because she says she’s pregnant, dumps her body in a barrel and flies to New York to try and get busy with his ex-girlfriend. And between the man who calls a woman a slut for rejecting him on OK Cupid, and the man who decides to shoot women because they rejected him in a forum outside of the internet. There is a broad spectrum of violence against women, and if others make those connections, while happening to “blow off steam” at the same time, that is a very useful thing in terms of naming the problem of misogyny in order to address it. Online misogyny is the same as offline misogyny, it’s just the medium we combat it in is different. The internet, despite what the Irish Times would like us to believe, is still real life.

And to be fair to feminists and activists and ordinary women who have participated in the #yesallwomen dialogue, there’s more chance of the world remaining “blithely indifferent” after an Irish Times piece that undermines women and questions the veracity of their experiences than after a hashtag conversation starter that has had over a million tweets since Friday night.

 

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