To Secure a Peaceful and Prosperous Future, Women Must Be Included at All Levels

For the first time in our history, Northern Ireland will commemorate the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement with a women-led Executive. At this pivotal moment, First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly have an opportunity to use their platforms to advocate for increased investment in women.

It is a powerful symbol to have two women leaders at the helm of a cross-community government, but we need to ensure that women across society are included in shaping our future. This will require giving women equal access to job opportunities, a seat at the table when decisions are being made, and an environment where they can play an active role in their communities without being subjected to violence or harassment.

Investment must create inclusive job opportunities

Since the early 2010s, the rate of employment amongst women in Northern Ireland has consistently remained lower than men. A survey published by the Department for the Economy showed that almost a third of working-age women are economically inactive compared to just under a quarter of men. If we redouble our efforts to tackle this disparity, we could not only provide women with greater access to new jobs and workplaces but also increase economic productivity for Northern Ireland as a whole.

Boosting economic growth is clearly a priority for O’Neill and Little-Pengelly, as evidenced by their recent trip to the US to secure foreign direct investment (FDI). Attracting FDI is an essential objective for any new government, especially one that has been absent since early 2021, but how that inward investment is used is equally important. The country is proving itself to be a titan for IT, cybersecurity, life sciences, and aerospace development, but while we turbocharge these new industries we must also ensure that women can play a role in them.

Already recognised by those involved in the peace process, women played a crucial role in securing the blueprint of what is the Good Friday Agreement. It’s therefore critical – as we look to the next chapter of peace in our community – that women reap the economic benefits achieved through peace.

Women must have a seat at the table when decisions are made

The inclusion of women in peace-building efforts during the Good Friday Agreement was innovative for its time, but women’s participation in post-conflict discussions relating to the legacy of ‘The Troubles’ has been lacking. Ironically, the political architecture that the Agreement created has pushed women’s voices and representation to the sidelines – with focus given primarily to the country’s ethno-national identities over the representation of other identities and minority groups.  Women have also been excluded from forums relating to security issues in this post-conflict era over the past 25 years. This is a missed opportunity, given the critical contributions that women can make to community wellbeing and healing.

While having a women-led Executive is a significant achievement, there is a long way to go in achieving gender parity in government. Despite electing a record number of women Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the latest Assembly election, just over a third of sitting MLAs are women.

Having women more actively involved in policymaking has proven to be a viable pathway for creating stable societies over the long-term. In countries that have greater gender equality in their political systems, conflicts are more likely to be resolved through non-violent methods. Women politicians and government leaders are also more likely to invest time and energy into healthcare, the environment, and education – all of which contribute to healthier, happier, and more stable communities. 

We must tackle violence and harassment

For women to take up greater roles in business and politics, we also need to create a society where they are not subjected to violence or harassment.

How all leaders react to the recent sexual offence charges against Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, the former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), will send a powerful signal to women across Northern Ireland – regardless of their political affiliations. We must ensure that women are comfortable coming forward to report abuse with assurance that their cases will be taken seriously. Despite these recent developments affecting her party, Emma Little-Pengelly championed the victims for coming forward in her statement reacting to the news.

Tackling violence against women – including domestic violence – has been a critical policy for Naomi Long, the Justice Minister, and she is planning to introduce a Hate Crime Bill to the Assembly during this legislative term. Attention is also increasing on the next iteration of the delayed Domestic and Sexual Abuse Strategy overseen by the Executive Office.  

Northern Ireland has much to do if it wants to maintain its social and economic progress and ensure lasting peace. O’Neill and Little-Pengelly – as the first two women to jointly hold the highest offices in Northern Ireland – should feel a sense of duty to accelerate gender equality. Equality, in all forms, is essential to maintaining a peaceful society.

[Photo by Northern Ireland Executive / Twitter]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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