08/03/2017 07:54 GMT | Updated 09/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Women Are Being Treated Like Criminals In Northern Ireland - This Has To Stop

Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

all women everywhere

It's International Women's Day, an opportunity for us to celebrate the advances being made in women's rights and call for more action to achieve gender equality. In the Northern Ireland Assembly election last week, the number of women MLAs increased marginally to 30%. While any increase is to be welcomed, we're a long way from our devolved government protecting the rights of the female half of the population. This is perhaps unsurprising though, in a region which treats women as criminals for accessing abortion.

Abortion is a healthcare and a human rights issue. Right now, in 2017, in Northern Ireland, women are still being hauled before the courts for accessing abortion. This is down to archaic and discriminatory 19th Century laws which mean that abortion is unlawful in almost every circumstance in this part of the UK. Last year a woman was convicted under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act for "procuring" and taking abortion pills obtained over the internet. Now there's another attempted prosecution - this time of a mother, who bought abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter.

Both cases are stark reminders of how far behind Northern Ireland is on women's reproductive rights. Amnesty has welcomed the court decision to grant a judicial review of the decision to prosecute this mother - she is not a criminal, her daughter is not a criminal and our law must stop treating them as such. Amnesty, alongside others, will go to court in May to support this woman's case and mount a direct challenge to the criminalisation of abortion.

These laws in Northern Ireland not only force women to resort to desperate measures, but they continue to exert a chilling effect on the medical profession, who are already torn between their desire to help women and to avoid prosecution.

Both the Northern Ireland and Westminster governments have shirked their responsibilities to women and to bringing our laws, which carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe, in line with human rights standards. However, there is a spotlight on this issue: a court ruling in 2015 that Northern Ireland's abortion laws breach women's rights, and attempts last year to introduce some reforms, show that the need for change is increasingly recognised. We will continue to work both via the courts system and Northern Ireland Assembly to bring about much-needed and long-overdue reform.

The situation for women in Northern Ireland is mirrored in the Republic of Ireland, where today many will strike for repeal of the 8th Amendment of the Irish constitution which gives equal rights to a foetus as to a woman. Every year, thousands of women are forced to travel abroad to have an abortion. The Republic of Ireland's laws on access to, and information about, abortion are, like in Northern Ireland, among the most restrictive in the world. Women and girls cannot legally have an abortion in Ireland unless there is a "real and substantial" risk to their life. Outside of this narrow ground, women who can afford it and have the necessary travel visas, can access abortion services in the United Kingdom and neighbouring European countries. Others illegally import and self-administer abortion pills without the recommended medical supervision.

The Strike 4 Repeal is an action calling on the Irish Government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment. It is a great opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and send a message that women can't wait for the basic human right to healthcare.

Something is happening right across the island of Ireland. People are speaking out and mobilising like never before to show there can be no hiding from this issue. The silence and shame which has surrounded abortion for too long is over.

On this day of reflection, advocacy and action, let's resolve to play our part in standing with women in both parts of Ireland and join their calls for an end to these outdated abortion laws.

Grainne Teggart is Campaign Manager in Northern Ireland for Amnesty UK

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