Marching for Our Rights: The Colonial Patriarchy in Northern Ireland Continues Old Habits
“An Injustice to One is an Injustice to All” was the theme of this year’s annual Bloody Sunday March, which took place in Derry/Londonderry on January 29th, 2023. Organized by the Bloody Sunday March Committee, this march commemorates the lives of 14 people who were shot during a peaceful protest on Sunday, January 30th, 1972 and advocates for justice.
On Bloody Sunday, twenty-six unarmed civilians were shot by the British army. Two investigations were completed by the British government. The Saville Inquiry, completed in 2010, found that the killings were unjustified and that British soldiers created false accounts to justify their actions. British Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologized in 2010, and only one soldier is currently being prosecuted (with the threat of future prosecutions becoming impossible due to the Legacy Bill).
This year, hundreds of people from all ages and backgrounds, as well as various activist groups, showed up to march on the 29th of January despite the rain and frigid temperatures. There was an air of solidarity in the crowd – a feeling that they all will be here every year doing this until justice is served.
This large and enthusiastic turnout contrasted sharply with the 70 or so attendees that marched several weeks later on International Women’s Day in a protest to “Stop Violence Against Women and Girls.” Organized by Alliance for Choice and Stop Street Harassment, the march was supported by Derry City and Strabane District Councilor Maeve O’Neill who stated to Belfast Live, “[Northern or The north of Ireland] is the most dangerous place to be a woman, with the joint highest deaths from domestic abuse… We have a politic that is extremely male-dominated and in many ways anti-women, with no childcare strategy, low wages for women, and poor access to reproductive rights which continues to be undermined by [the] Government.”
The disparity between these events is, sadly, not surprising. Historically women’s issues in Northern Ireland have been sidelined when compared to issues of ethno-nationalism and sectarianism. Despite the large investment in the peace process in Northern Ireland, which has led to many peace-focused nonprofits working in and across different communities, there seems to be a convenient gap in the issues surrounding violence against women and an overall lack of support for Human Rights Defenders seeking women’s rights. As of now, the patriarchal landscape in Northern Ireland continues to interfere with meaningful change for women.
The Northern Ireland Policy Group’s findings in their 2022 Violence Against Women and Girls Report showed alarming statistics. They found that “83% of women have been impacted by men’s violence against women and girls but only 21.4% reported this to the police and 77.4% of those did not find it useful.” The findings also revealed that “82% of women first experienced men’s violence before the age of 20.” This data shows that it is next to impossible for someone living in Northern Ireland to not encounter these issues on a regular basis.
This begs the question, why wasn’t there more solidarity at a march working to stop violence against women? One could argue that religious ideals in the North prevented support, that the weather was poor, or that the event was not promoted well. But even if those things are true, it appears that if this ethno-nationalist patriarchal society is impacted by injustices from the state and its allies, there is no room for justice for women.
This pattern is grounded in the structures of Northern Irish and Irish society, in large part due to colonialism. Colonial oppression of Ireland lasted centuries, with the British importing their rule and religion over the indigenous Irish Celtic pagan religion. Forced to convert, many Irish people became Catholics and then later Protestants. Social control by churches led to horrible abuses against women, including the Magdalene Laundries, which forced women working as sex workers, single mothers, and non-conformers into slave labor for state-supported religious institutions as recently as 1996.
Although functionally a different country, embedded in Ireland’s constitution are biased structures of the past. It states, “By her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support which the common good cannot be achieved.” This state sponsored bigotry, combined with a history of colonialism, perpetuates and informs the lack of support for women’s rights on the island today.
Councilor O’Neill stated, “Society would grind to a halt without the backbreaking work for women, who hold up families and hold up communities. By improving rights for women, we improve society as a whole. This is why we must all come together… to raise our voices against femicide, against domestic violence and for equal rights for women and girls.”
The time is now to address violence against women in Northern Ireland and around the world. We must also stand up for those who do not identify as women and are trapped in the same oppressive patriarchal systems. Life itself is the result of a woman’s labor. It is time to get up and show up to these marches. Solidarity, showing up, and standing out – this is key for the advancement of women’s human rights. There is no time to waste.