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Ireland to vote on removing ‘sexist’ references to women from constitution

Dublin, Ireland

Ireland is poised to vote on Friday – International Women’s Day – to replace constitutional references on the importance of a woman’s “life within the home”, the latest attempt to update its socially conservative 1937 founding document.

While social change in the once deeply Catholic nation has spurred the removal of bans on abortion and same-sex marriage, the constitution contains a clause recognising “that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”.

Signage is seen in relation to an upcoming 8th March referendum on changes to the Irish constitution called the Family Amendment and the Care Amendment, in Dublin, Ireland, on 3rd March, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File photo

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has pitched the vote, deliberately being held on International Women’s Day, as a chance to delete some “very old-fashioned, very sexist language about women.”

Still, some disability campaigners and advocacy groups have opposed the government’s proposal to replace the wording with language recognising care within families for not placing a greater legal onus on the state to support those who give or receive care.

“A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be and nothing less is acceptable in our constitution,” Orla O’Connor, director of Ireland’s National Women’s Council said while canvassing for a “yes” vote in central Dublin on Wednesday.

A second clause due to be replaced says the state “shall endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Indeed, until 1973, single women were required to resign from their jobs upon getting married, and married women were disqualified from applying for vacancies.

Low turnout risk
Opinion polls a week ahead of the vote suggested a clear majority would back the proposal, and a second one that expands the definition of family in the constitution to recognise “durable relationships,” such as cohabiting couples and their children.

However, a low-profile campaign that has not appeared to engage the electorate risks a low turnout that in the past has boosted the proportion of people voting for the status quo.

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Analysts have compared it to a 2012 referendum to protect children’s rights that passed by a tighter-than-expected margin as just 33% of eligible voters cast their ballots. Turnout was almost twice that level at the 2015 and 2018 votes to allow same-sex marriage and liberalise restrictive abortion laws.

Many campaigners who opposed the amendment on women’s role in society argued that the proposed replacement wording – saying the state shall “strive” to support care provision – would enshrine care as a private responsibility and not a state one.

“I am confident that the sexist, harmful language of Article 41.2 will, in the future, be fixed,” said Professor Siobhan Mullally, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the School of Law, University of Galway.

“I am not so confident, however, that a future government will fix our continuing failure to commit to supporting the public good of care work – in families and communities.”


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