Ireland’s Referendums on Women and Family in the Constitution, Explained

For the past eight decades, Ireland’s Constitution has included language enshrining the role of women in the home, which equality advocates have long seen as a relic of a patriarchal past. On Friday, the Irish public will vote on proposals to change that language and to broaden the definition of what constitutes a family.

The voting coincides with International Women’s Day and could be another milestone in a transformative few decades during which Ireland has reshaped its Constitution in ways that reflect the country’s more secular and liberal modern identity.

If passed, the amendments would provide the latest updates to the Constitution, a document originally written in line with the values of the Roman Catholic Church and ratified in 1937, when religion and social conservatism dominated society.

Voters will be asked to consider two separate questions.

The first asks whether the public is in favor of amending Article 41 of the Constitution to provide for a wider concept of family.

At present, the Constitution says: “The state recognizes the family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.”

It adds: “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.”

The new language would recognize a family, “whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships” as the fundamental unit of society. The words “on which the family is founded” would be removed from the clause about the state’s responsibility for guarding the institution of marriage.

The second question is about Article 41.2 of the Constitution, which currently says that the state “recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that the state will “endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

If voters choose in favor, the reference to the role of women in the home would be removed. A new Article, 42B, would recognize and protect all family caregivers, saying: “The state recognizes that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision.”

The Irish Constitution was written at a time when the influence of the Roman Catholic Church was immense, and language that reflected the church’s social teachings was woven into the national document. It defined women in terms of their role as wives and mothers, and outlined their duties in the home.

The proposed changes would be another signal of Ireland’s move away from being a conservative state rooted in Catholic values — particularly around the role of women. That transformation has happened rapidly. At the start of the 1990s, divorce and gay marriage were illegal, and abortion was outlawed in nearly all cases.

In 1995, Ireland voted to end its ban on divorce, with a later referendum in 2019 further liberalizing divorce laws. In 2015, the country voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and, in 2018, to repeal the amendment that prohibited abortion.

Recent polling by The Irish Times has indicated that a majority of voters intends to approve both proposals. Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, a charity that promotes women’s rights and equality, said in a statement that the changes were a “chance to remove sexist language and limits on women from our Constitution.”

Voting in favor, she said, “will be a long step away from this dark past and a small step toward recognizing the importance of care and the care roles of both women and men.”

She added: “We encourage all voters to really think: Do we want our young women and girls growing up in an Ireland where the Constitution still tells them that their primary place, indeed their ‘life,’ is in the home?” And that they have ‘duties’ and the boys and men don’t?”

Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, has campaigned in favor of the proposals. She said she thought that the changes “will reflect the overwhelming impulse for equality and inclusivity that is a hallmark of modern Ireland.”

All of the country’s major political parties have also called for voters to approve the overhaul. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, speaking to reporters while he was campaigning in Dublin this week, urged the public to vote in favor of both proposals.

“If there is a yes vote, we will be saying as a society that all families are equal and the marital status of parents shouldn’t affect that,” he said, referring to the family question. Regarding the second question, about the role of women, he added: “If there is a no vote, we will have very outdated language in our Constitution that will be there for the foreseeable future. I think that would be really unfortunate.”

Catholic bishops in Ireland issued a statement last month saying they believed that the proposed change to the family clause would “lead to a weakening of the incentive for young people to marry.”

They also expressed concern about the removal of the clause about women, saying, “It would have the effect of abolishing all reference to motherhood in the Constitution and leave unacknowledged the particular and incalculable societal contribution that mothers in the home have made and continue to make in Ireland.”

Other critics have argued that the proposed language changes do not go far enough, particularly around the provisions for caregivers, while some have said that the new language is problematic. Free Legal Advice Centres, an independent human rights and equality body, said in a statement that it supported the change to in the first question, the definition of family, but rejected the wording in the second, about caregivers.

The proposed language intended to replace the reference to a women’s duties in the home “endorses a status quo where women undertake the bulk of unpaid care work and places no obligation whatsoever on the state to redress this gender imbalance — rendering it an implicitly sexist amendment,” the group said.

Mr. Varadkar, however, said that those who criticized the measures as not going far enough were missing the point.

“I would very much see these referendums as further progress toward modernizing our Constitution, and incremental change in the right direction,” he said.

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