Sunday 15 September 2019

Irish women must embrace their anger and really sharpen themselves against it

For too long, we have been taught that anger is a negative emotion but after dark decades, women here have seen and heard enough, writes Niamh Horan

Emma Mhic Mhathuna. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Emma Mhic Mhathuna. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

The text came in from a female friend just after midnight."I hate this country. I really do. The way we treat women in this country is so f***ed up."

It had no preamble. It didn't need to.

I knew she had just had the chance to listen to Emma Mhic Mhathuna on RTE's Morning Ireland playback.

Joanne Hayes
Joanne Hayes

It was shortly after she put her baby daughter to sleep that she heard the harrowing words: "I was told this by my gynaecologist… he told me himself, that if my smear test was right in 2013, I wouldn't be where I am today. And this is what makes it so heart-breaking. I'm dying, when I don't need to die. And my children are going to be without me, and I'm going to be without them."

And, like every other woman in the country when hearing this heart-wrenching testimony, she was angry.

I am leaving men out of this because there is a certain rage the women of this country are feeling now. Men may empathise, but they don't fully know our rage.

Vicky Phelan. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Vicky Phelan. Photo: Fergal Phillips

It's the kind of rage that comes from feeling the oppression of your sex through hundreds of years of your country's history. One dark and sorry chapter after the next. It is the rage that was in the young women of Kerry who came home in silence after being interrogated by police about their sex lives during the Kerry baby scandal. The same rage Joanne Hayes must have experienced at the public inquiry as a legal team showed maps where she and her lover had been intimate and detailed the size of her birth canal.

The same rage that was screamed into the pillows of the dormitory rooms at the Magdalene laundries when women were forced to sell their babies and work slave labour for their freedom. The same anguish a 15-year-old girl soaked in blood and dying alone in a grotto experienced during childbirth.

The same rage felt by women forced out of jobs due to the marriage bar. The same rage that met the 260 deaths of women hit by the Hepatitis C scandal and those who live with its legacy. It's the same rage that was unearthed again in the mass grave of babies born out of wedlock in Tuam. The same rage that more than 200,000 women carried - and carry still - with them when forced to travel to Britain for an abortion since 1983. The same rage that comes from decades and decades of Church and State blurring into one, attempting to dictate and control women's bodies.

People may say you can't conflate these issues, but for many women reading about the cervical smear scandal last week, it felt like the same vein being opened again.

A predominantly male system, feeling it knows best, better than women themselves, about their rights and their bodies.

Another saga in a long and sordid litany of insults to women's health under our establishment, shamefully fuelled by silence and cover-ups.

Bishops burning letters in Holy Cross; Catholic homes burying babies in Tuam; health mandarins firing off memos about how to keep details from women and the press; lawyers at the High Court drawing up non-disclosure agreements and handing over the pen.

But women like Vicky Phelan are not signing up to it anymore. They are speaking out. They are saying: no more. Irish women have seen and heard too much.

In the most extreme cases of failed healthcare, where women's names had to be protected, we have been through almost every letter of the alphabet.

There was the raped 14-year-old in the X case; the C case (when a 13-year old Traveller girl was taken to the UK for an abortion after being brutally raped); the cases of A, B and C in the European court; not one but two Miss D cases (one whose baby was developing with no brain had to fight to be allowed travel to England for a termination); then there was Miss Y (the young asylum seeker raped abroad and forced in Ireland to have a Caesarean section against her initial wishes before the child was placed in State care).

And Miss NP, a pregnant 26-year-old mother kept on life support after catastrophic brain injuries, while her family spent Christmas fighting the State to have her life-support machine switched off.

That's leaving aside all the names of women we do know. Women such Savita Halappanavar, who died in childbirth after being refused a termination and dying from infection or Michelle Harte, who had to travel to Britain for an abortion while she was terminally ill with cancer.

If we felt apathy towards feminism and the fight for women's rights before, we know now this is not something we can afford.

Every woman has been touched by a story, an experience. If not in healthcare, then in employment, the gender pay gap (Irish women are paid an average of 14pc less than men and the gap is widening), the stories of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, maternity leave and termination of contracts (women's healthcare isn't the only area non-disclosure agreements are being sought) and more.

People will try to tell you that it's OK; that Ireland isn't as bad as other countries. They will point to the statistics suggesting we have one of the lowest rates of maternal death in the world. Not good enough. If the fact that we don't let women die in childbirth is your over-riding barometer of good healthcare, then there is something seriously wrong with your thinking.

It's no wonder we feel rage. The kind of rage that makes us want to burn the system down. The kind of rage that caused a President thousands of miles away to sit up and respond to a mother in the wilds of Kerry and tell her he will meet her this week.

Emma Mhic Mhathuna doesn't have time for apologies. She doesn't want resignations. She wants to dismantle the entire HSE and start again.

A lot of women can relate to the feeling. The need for a new start for the next generation of women in this country.

For a long time women were taught that anger is an uncivilised emotion. They worry about being perceived as angry when they fight for feminism. But as American writer Roxane Gay says: "It is not unreasonable when considering the inequalities, challenges, violence and oppression women the world over face. I want to tell these young women to embrace their anger, sharpen themselves against it."

Until now, the problem is that we haven't been angry enough.

Sunday Independent

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