CENTRE FOR RESEARCH ON WOMEN
COMMUNITY EDUCATION RESEARCH AND
A RESEARCH PROJECT WITH AN ACTION OUTCOME
Eilish Rooney and Margaret Woods
This reports sets out the results of a one-year study of the political and community participation of women in NI. Its aims were to examine (i) what effects women consider their activism has on the resolution of conflict (ii) what role community education processes and practices play in promoting alliances between women operating in their separate communities and (iii) whether educational processes and practices can contribute to increasing the political effectiveness of women in NI. The research was based in three electoral areas of Belfast, Court, Lower Falls and Laganbank areas. The question of women's involvement in electoral politics was the focus of the interviews with elected councillors for wards in these areas (n = 14) and with representatives of the seven political parties who had put up candidates in the last local government elections. Women's community political involvement was explored by means of a postal questionnaire completed by 213 women who belonged to local women's groups of various kinds in these areas. Interviews with 17 others who were professionally and politically active in the areas were carried out to place findings in an overall context. This was further aided by dissemination sessions in the local areas.
As far as electoral politics is concerned, the report finds:
In the report these findings are discussed within the special context of the limited structures for democratic participation in NI.
On questions of women's community participation the report studies 28 groups ranging from mother and toddler to community development type groups. It finds:
The conclusion to the report stresses the varied forms of activity
in which women engage, and challenges the tendency to regard women's
political participation in any simple way as less than men's.
It emphasises that women are active in local politics, despite
attitudinal and behaviour barriers, and that women's activity
in their local groups cannot be dismissed as 'women's issues'
only and of no wider impact. While it is perhaps premature in
this context to give a conclusion about the precise effects of
women's activity on conflict and the extent to which community
relations can be enhanced through educational efforts, findings
show there is a strong endorsement of educational activity. As
far as community relations is concerned this activity is endorsed
with a number of qualifications. One quarter to one third of the
women feel that their group did have an impact on community relations.
Doubts on the part of local professional activists, however, concerning
the ways in which organisational change and central funding decisions
may be having an adverse impact on women's groups are seen as
important. The report ends with thoughts on the precarious vitality
of women's community activity. It makes recommendations for a
range of agencies. The main recommendation makes a strong plea
for: a systematic second stage of dissemination of the results
of this study involving a planned process of discussion which
would enable further strategies to be identified and pursued.
Women's Place in the Solution
The dismal picture of women's participation in electoral politics is not borne out in this study. Women are committed and active in political parties at grassroots levels. The parties say they value this work and indeed they depend upon it at election time. Women are active in the electoral arena. They are committed local councillors - they have to be, in order to overcome the barriers to participation that men and women acknowledge confront women. Women are not 'bystanders' in electoral politics. However, the presence of women in the decision making structures of political parties is almost uniformly poor. There are different perceptions as to the barriers that women face in electoral politics, and there is disagreement as to how far pragmatic measures should be taken to remove these barriers. Women in politics can see and describe their exclusion and they also explain the ways inclusion can work against women. There is confusion around what politics is and what 'women's issues' are and there is general agreement that the latter is somehow excluded from the former. There are activists within the parties working to change the profile and role of women and various healthy and tentative changes are afoot.
Turning to the community, the activities of women at community level and recent developments in this sphere provided some of the starting points of this study. Women in local groups are certain that they have an impact in their local community. Despite domestic responsibilities these women commit considerable time to their groups. They know the needs and interests of their communities and the different groups (Mother and toddler, community development, and so on) respond in different ways. The groups can be seen, in some senses, as actively representing these needs and interests at community level and participating in a form of limited local democracy. The women themselves, however, partly downplay this activity. They distinguish between divisive politics (big 'P') and 'bread and butter issues' - politics with a small 'p'. These women also grapple with conceptual confusions about 'political issues' 'social issues' and 'women's issues' and place themselves and their group's purpose within the realms of the last two. However, they want to see more women in politics and believe that this would contribute towards a resolution of the problems of NI. They do not envisage themselves active in electoral politics. It is ironic that the issues and problems around which these women organise and the issues and problems which consume the time of the councillors in our study are the same issues - the effects of unemployment and poverty in these communities.
Developments within local groups in this community sphere seem to occur in the wake of funders thinking of other things. There is no sense of a coherent overall strategy to consolidate these activities or to aid women in their community participation. The involvement of the churches, of large voluntary sector organisations, the development of centralised trust administration may, in some instances, have benefits for some of these groups and for their communities. However, the PAs caution that there are also unanticipated adverse effects. Groups are unable to reflect and think strategically and to consolidate the important developments outlined here. The amorphous agencies and bodies in the voluntary sector do not form an institutional structure. The problem of building a picture of women's participation in this context is that there is no apparent structure to 'deconstruct' in order to see how women's activities relate to decisive developments. Neither is there an accepted conventional language we can use to describe women's forms of limited local participatory democracy. Women in politics may be perversely 'present' by their absence once this is pointed out. In the voluntary sector the structures are not visible and may not be accessible to the groups and activists who are pressing for change and for a more coherent approach towards women's community participation. There is a case for examining where women are in the larger and decisive voluntary sector organisations.
The question of community relations needs to be examined in the light of this. The elected representatives are cautious or make charges of city council sectarianism. The pragmatic motivation of local women's groups has some complex and partially positive community relations implications both for the groups and for community relations strategy. PAs noted that there was a shared awareness gained by women's contact with 'different' groups which has led to a willingness to work with 'other' women to develop women's activities and meet collective needs. In NI 'other' and 'different' are frequently used as euphemisms for the community holding the opposed political stance. That women identify 'collective needs' across political and communal boundaries is also evident in the women's survey. The stated objectives of these activities is to get together on the issue at hand. Contact and working relationships established in this way is valued by the groups that participate. For this very reason, however, some of the groups and key networks quite explicitly do not seek community relations funding because that is not their stated purpose and they do not wish relationships to be seen to be in some sense manipulated by funding criteria which do not recognise the value of what they are about. There are many ways to 'dialogue'. It is the argument of this report that a community women's movement is engaged in a form of dialogue around shared interests and concerns. The willingness to carefully engage in political dialogue, within particular frameworks, was signalled in the WEA Conference. This development is not seen by participants as 'cross community activity' in the naive manner of ignoring difference and 'loving each other'. That approach has been well criticised (Horowitz 1990). However, the view that this is what 'community relations' is about persists and it persists amongst women's groups (Taillon 1992), thus excluding them from CR support.
Some of the literature suggests that cross community strategy has differentiated benefits for women and men (Gallagher 1989, Dunn 1986). In the social attitudes survey Valerie Morgan (1992) noted that women are 'noticeably less optimistic' than men about change in future relations between Catholics and Protestants. She speculates that this may be because they are more realistic, or it may be because they have fewer workplace or educational opportunities to develop a more optimistic view of the future. There may be gendered perceptions of the 'troubles'. We compared how the women in our study perceived the most important problem facing people in NI with a study of three communities in which respondents were asked what is the 'big problem in NI'. In the Hamilton, McCartney et al (1990) study respondents cited either the Anglo Irish Agreement or political violence as the 'big problem'. To the regret of the researchers their study did not have a working class catholic community as one of its locations nor does the study give a gender breakdown of responses. Nevertheless, in the absence of comparative data, it makes an interesting comparison with our study where women in the three areas agreed that the most important problem facing people in NI is unemployment. Our study also suggests that cross community activity may have a distributional pattern. But whether this means that women in Court see their collaborations with catholic women as 'cross community activity' whilst women in Falls do not is, at this stage, impossible to say. Women's ways of working and of conceptualising dialogue do not align easily with current community relations vocabulary. Further research is needed.
The funding of community relations work, the policy and strategy is crucial from the perspective of community groups who, for reasons not of their making may be unable to apply for monies. Groups in our study are also dealing with intra-communal conflict. It appears, on a superficial perusal, that they adopt an avoidance strategy. However, open-eyed avoidance, as well as being recommended by international experts in conflict resolution, is largely what seems to be practiced in local women's groups (Horowitz 1992).
All this is to suggest for community relations that, in the absence of any coherent strategy for aiding women's participation at community level in NI, there may be unintentional consequences for vital but vulnerable developments in and between communities.
It may be fanciful to speculate on the consequences of those 'fifty women' in Belfast City Council. Fifty could surely be found amongst the women's groups. But would they make a difference? We think that that may be the more fanciful speculation. Women's ability, and their right to fully participate in the conflict of resolutions at the electoral level and at community level is stymied and blocked in ways that imagination, resources and perhaps necessity could begin to release. Women are not the 'solution'. But neither are they the 'problem'. Women in local groups are motivated to improve life in their communities. They contribute to the social fabric and they do so consciously and across communities through their group work. When there is a window of opportunity (which may in fact be a funding crisis) this working alliance can result in open cross community support. For as long as their contribution remains unseen and unrecognised it cannot be developed to its full potential. This is one of the first research reports to begin to explore political action for women in the NI context. Helping to make women visible in what they are doing is the first step.
No simple set of formula for development neatly emerges from this report. Our main recommendation is for a systematic second stage of dissemination of the results and the development of an action plan including feedback to all participants to this research and to all others interested. This could take the form of a series of seminars designed for different agencies and audiences. it would involve careful planning and collaboration with others in the various agencies. The overall aim would be to advance the work begun in this study in order to identify and pursue further strategies. A wide range of agencies, statutory bodies, voluntary organisations and political institutions have historically, strategically or unintentionally had a role in the findings of this report. The following are a number of ways these different bodies may integrate or use the findings of this report:
The Central Community Relations Council has initiated this study of women in NI. It has a crucial role to play in enabling these recommendations to become a reality and in creating an awareness of the place women have and of the part they may play in NI. There will need to be initial discussion of the report followed by a properly planned and adequately resourced dissemination process. We, for our part, would be most willing to participate in such a programme of activity.
This is one of the first research reports to begin to explore women s political action in electoral politics and in communities in the NI context. There is a precarious vitality in women's community activity which merits a response from these bodies. Helping to make visible what women are doing is only, however, a first step.