07/01/2018 12:10 GMT | Updated 07/01/2018 12:10 GMT

Ireland's Little Christmas Starts A Year Of Big Change For Women's Rights

London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign
Supporters of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign marching in London in 2017.

Yesterday was Nollaig na mBan in Ireland: Women’s Christmas, or known in some parts of the country as Women’s Little Christmas or Little Christmas. Traditionally, 6 January (the Feast of the Epiphany) marked the twelfth day of Christmas and the end of the Christmas season, and it was a day for role reversal: women who had slaved over hot stoves and kept their families fed and watered over Christmas had a break, while the men took on the household chores. Often wives and mothers went out for the day with female relatives and friends. The tradition was particularly strong in rural and Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) areas.

Christmas cooking and preparation is no longer the exclusive preserve of Irish women, but Nollaig na mBan is still celebrated, and the tradition is enjoying something of a revival in recent years, in Ireland and in Irish emigrant communities abroad. It now has a different significance: it is a day to mark and celebrate relationships women have with other women, and an opportunity to consider the place of women in Irish society. This year, it has a particular significance, for two closely connected reasons. They both have their roots in a long outdated and misogynistic mentality that women’s bodies and sexuality should be controlled.

Abortion Referendum

First, Ireland will hold a long-awaited referendum on abortion in 2018. Ireland has highly restrictive abortion laws, which ban abortion in all but the narrowest of circumstances, where doctors believe a woman’s life is at risk. Women who obtain abortions and those who help her risk up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Even when a pregnant woman’s life is at risk, abortion is unlikely to be provided given the risks of criminal sanction and the lack of any effective system of assessment - 2012 saw the entirely preventable death of Savita Halappanavar from complications due to a septic miscarriage.

It has been 35 years since the 1983 referendum, which amended the Irish Constitution to refer to the “equal right to life” of the mother and “the unborn,” a loaded and misleading term for a foetus. International human rights bodies have repeatedly made clear that criminalisation of abortion is a form of discrimination against women, and that Ireland’s laws are unacceptable. For example, the UN Human Rights Committee condemned Ireland for inflicting “inhumane and degrading treatment” upon Amanda Mellet and her husband James Burke, forcing them to travel to England for a termination when they learned that the foetus Amanda was carrying suffered from a fatal condition. Last month, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, criticised Ireland for its abortion laws, emphasising their “broad range of physical, psychological, financial and social impacts on women, with implications for their health and well-being”. “Because of the legal consequences,” the report stated, “women in these countries who resort to clandestine abortion are often afraid to seek post-abortion care if complications arise, with potentially severe consequences for their health.”

Justice for Magdalenes

Second, Nollaig na mBan 2018 comes weeks after the publication of a damning ombudsman’s report into the Department of Justice’s handling of the compensation scheme for women who worked in Magdalene laundries. Named after the redeemed prostitute in the Bible, Mary Magdalene, they were institutions in Ireland (usually Catholic church-run) which incarcerated tens of thousands of “fallen women”: women and girls who were pregnant but unmarried, single mothers and those who were considered “promiscuous.” Some women worked in the laundries only for the duration of their pregnancies or for a period post-birth, and were released when their children were adopted (often forcibly, and inevitably without the mothers’ real consent). Others worked there for many years, some for the rest of their lives. The laundries were workhouses, operating as businesses whilst the women were unpaid. These women are often described as Ireland’s disappeared. The end of this barbaric practice is shockingly recent: Ireland’s last Magdalene Laundry closed only in 1996, three years after the existence of the laundries became widely known when a convent sold off part of its land and the remains of 155 inmates who had been buried in unmarked graves on the property were exhumed. A superb campaign, Justice for Magdalenes, eventually led to an official State apology and the establishment of a redress scheme in 2013.

However, the ombudsman’s December 2017 report has laid bare the serious failings of the Irish government’s redress scheme. He states that, “Unfortunately, a scheme intended to bring healing and reconciliation has, for some, served instead to cause further distress... These women have spent years seeking something very simple — redress that they were promised by the State. No more and no less.” These women have waited long enough. The Department of Justice must heed the ombudsman and meet its obligations.

All Change in 2018?

The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution and the Magdalene Laundries are stains in Irish history, both examples of the State and the Catholic Church exercising control over women’s bodies and their lives. Both of these historic wrongs can be righted in 2018. Let this be the last Nollaig na mBan on which we have to call for ‘Repeal the 8th’ or ‘Justice for Magdalenes.’ Reflecting on this Little Christmas, I am hoping for big changes in women’s rights in Ireland.