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One party’s take on getting women into the House

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SDLP, women in the House of Commons, Women's Charter, care, financial resourcesIn terms of broader participation of women in public life the SDLP has long called for a Women’s Charter.

Along with the UK’s other political parties, Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) submitted evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry into Women in the House of Commons in November 2016.

The SDLP said it welcomed the inquiry as the participation of women in the democratic process, particularly as elected representatives, is a matter of not only equality but of improving the performance of government.

This ‘improving’ has been demonstrated by a broad range of research, findings from which include:

Women in public office are more likely to promote policies that address the socio-economic and political challenges facing disadvantaged groups;

Countries where women are well represented in public office are proven to have a lower level of corruption, which restores faith in government; and

Peace and reconciliation efforts with a higher rate of women involved are proven to be more effective and sustainable.

The SDLP’s own ethos is based on civil rights and the development of an inclusive society, and the participation of women in elections and an increase in the number of women MPs, MLAs and councillors is an important aspect of that vision, it told the Committee.

Currently three MPs in the House of Commons represent the SDLP: Mark Durkan, MP for Foyle, Alasdair McDonnell, MP for Belfast South, and Margaret Ritchie, MP for South Down.

The SDLP has, over a range of recent elections, adopted a progressive realisation approach to achieving gender balance.

For example in the 2014 local council elections, the SDLP leadership set a target of 30 per cent of women candidates. This target was exceeded, and 40 per cent of SDLP local council candidates were women.

The SDLP also proactively seeks to include women in positions of leadership and is proud that the first female Nationalist Mayor of Belfast was an SDLP councillor, who is now an MLA for North Belfast, Nichola Mallon.

However, despite these advances the SDLP is fully aware that there are a number of issues that women face that present barriers to running for election. These include but are not limited to care responsibilities, challenges in securing childcare and access to financial resources.

In terms of broader participation of women in public life the SDLP has long called for a Women’s Charter to provide support and remove the barriers that women face when attempting to participate in politics and public life.

Such a charter would call for:

1) Implementation of an effective Gender Equality Strategy, addressing among other issues the number of women in public appointments.

2) Introduction of equal pay audits to eliminate the gap between men and women’s earnings.

3) Introduction of a Single Equality Bill, to progressively harmonise protections against discrimination.

4) Development of high quality, affordable childcare schemes in partnership with the community and voluntary sector, the commercial child-minding sector and employers.

5) Implement and improve the Valuing Carers Strategy, research the levels and types of need including those caring for both the elderly and the young.

6) Support “Women in Rural Communities” groups, acknowledging the key roles played and addressing the challenges faced by women in rural areas.

7) Oppose welfare reform changes which would disproportionately affect single parent families and therefore hit women hardest.

8) Expand protections for workers in peripheral or short duration work, as there is a vast body of research showing that women are more likely to be on zero hour contracts, minimum wages roles or short-term employment. 

9) Secure additional financial support for students with dependants, again, more likely to be female than male.

10) Improved access for third sector organisations to state-run courses and training events.

The SDLP also said it believes that political parties should be encouraged in their efforts to improve the representation of women in public office, and their efforts to do so facilitated.

These include areas such as: capacity development, campaign resources, candidate selection, caring duties, the culture of politics and UN Security Council resolution 1325

The SDLP both centrally and through its Women’s Group has provided bespoke and targeted training for its female members in all manners of party activity including running for office.

The SDLP will continue to work with external groups and third sector organisations such as ‘Women For Election’ to develop an individual’s capacity and adapt its current structures to ensure a more representative slate of candidates.

The SDLP believes that the content of such courses should be adapted and included within secondary level education.

In recent elections the SDLP has directed additional financial and campaigning resources towards female candidates to ensure a fair platform is provided. And as many candidates for election often draw on their own resources the SDLP sees this as connected to the pay gap and the wider discrimination women face in their professional lives.

In advance of previous elections, the women’s group has undertaken projects to identify, encourage and support female candidates during the party’s selection process, while for elections to internal positions the SDLP has adopted gender quotas in elections to the party’s Executive.

And as a party the SDLP has sought to formalise such projects within its constitution and will be discussing methods of approach at an upcoming constitutional conference.

In terms of both campaign resources and candidate selection the SDLP has been analysing the approach laid out in the Oireachtas Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 which links levels of public subsidy to a party’s gender balance among candidates.

And the SDLP recognises that woman face additional barriers to participation in politics and serving in public office, for even though Northern Irish society is changing, women are still dominant in caring and family roles.

As such, the SDLP said, it believes that parliament and the legislatures must ensure adequate care facilities and family-friendly working hours are provided to allow for the full participation for women who also have caring roles.

In all aspects of its activity the SDLP seeks to provide a respectful and inclusive culture, and as such it has adopted strict guidance for what constitutes acceptable manner of debate.

While issues of competing rights must be taken into consideration, the SDLP is investigating progressive measures to combat abusive or discriminatory communication in the democratic conversation, and calls for measures including a multi-agency approach to tackling abusive communications and an expanded focus upon the criminal offense of grossly offensive communications.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) was the first formal and legal document from the Security Council that required parties in a conflict to prevent violations of women’s rights, to support women’s participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction, and to protect women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict.

The SDLP said it believes that the UNSCR 1325 presents an opportunity to advance real and meaningful participation for women in public and political life and broader conflict resolution processes.

But the SDLP is concerned that while the Republic of Ireland’s UNSCR 1325 implementation plans contain key points in relation to Northern Ireland, the British government has failed to live up to its obligations by adopting a position of not applying its provisions to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

To read the full report made after the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry into Women in the House of Commons click here.

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