After the Irish referendum, the debate over women’s bodies still rages | ActionAid UK

Delyth Jewell

Campaigns team

The result of the Irish referendum has been greeted with a sigh of relief by those who cherish women’s rights across the world. But the fierce debate that has gripped Irish society in recent weeks is no isolated matter. Instead, we should see it in the context of disputes being played out in every corner of our planet about the relationship between women and their bodies, and their power – or lack of power – to decide what happens to them.

A 'vote yes' poster in Dublin, Ireland, before the referendum.
A 'vote yes' poster in Dublin, Ireland, before the referendum.

At ActionAid, women’s rights are the cornerstone of our entire programme of work, and we work with grassroots women’s rights organisations worldwide to ensure that women are empowered in every aspect of their lives. ActionAid are unflinching in our belief that women and girls should have the right to control their own bodies, and we will never stop working towards a world where no woman or girl will have to face violence because of her gender.  

It’s not just the Irish referendum

But that is far from being a reality. Today, women really are facing a fight for their lives. From terrorist attacks carried out by so-called “involuntarily celibate” men, to the frightening rise in calls for the redistribution of sex, and from US President Trump’s decision to reinstate the global gag rule restricting women’s access to abortion, to the near-daily reports of rapes and sexually-aggravated murders in India, women and girls are being punished for the simple fact that they are women. In this ugly battle, women’s bodies are being used as proxies for deeper social worries over freedoms, ethnic tensions, and land.  

What is happening to women’s bodies does not exist in a vacuum. In towns and cities over the world, women’s access to public spaces is being dented by funding cuts to women’s rights organisations and a rise in fundamentalist attitudes. In recent years, a disturbing backlash has begun against women’s rights, where many countries have rolled back rights previously afforded to women. Bangladesh and Iraq have put forward plans to legalise marriage for girls under the age of ten, and in Jordan and Lebanon, feminist movements have been taking on laws that allow rapists to marry their victim in order to evade prosecution. Last year, ActionAid launched a #WomensRightsWatch hashtag to track rollbacks. It makes for grim reading.

At the crux of all of this is a fundamental question about the value societies place on a woman’s life: should she be treated as a free citizen, equal in all aspects to her brother, father, husband – or should she be seen as a vessel to be exploited, dominated, disposed of?

We know what side we’re on. 

Shining a spotlight

Through our #MyBodyIsMine campaign, ActionAid has started a public debate in the UK centred around women’s sense of ownership of their bodies, whilst shining a spotlight on violence against women across the world. We believe that every woman should have the right to say that her body is her own and to control what happens to it.  

Khaing Zar Lin

More widely, we’re calling for a full and frank debate about the alarming shifts in global attitudes to women’s rights, which so often have women’s bodies at their very core. The UK government should support other countries to widen access to justice for survivors of violence, and make sure that laws that are meant to protect survivors of violence are enforced, where they exist. Indispensably, the UK government must continue to prioritise funding programmes that address violence against women and girls, including working with local grassroots organisations. These programmes are not just a lifeline for supporting survivors of violence, but are essential components in challenging societal attitudes towards women’s place in society. 

It is a messy, bloody struggle ahead, and we in the UK should be under no illusions about what is at stake.

So, as we breathe that sigh of relief for our sisters in Ireland, let’s use that same breath to draw attention to abuses happening in countries all over the planet, and add our voices to those of women asserting that what happens to their bodies is theirs to decide.

They need our solidarity too.

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Photo credits: ActionAid.