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Women Leading the Way

The water charges struggle campaign has seen women come to the fore as increasingly politicised working class communities refuse to accept further cuts to their living standards, writes Áine Mannion  

Working class communities from across Dublin marched from Connolly and Heuston Stations towards O’Connell Street on Saturday, 21st March, to protest against water charges and other austerity attacks. At their fore were the ‘pink ladies’.

Wearing distinctive pink high-viz vests, this vanguard of mothers, daughters and sisters have come to define the water protest movement.

The ‘pink ladies’ first emerged on 18th November 2014, when over 200 women silently lined Oscar Traynor Road outside Coolock Garda Station in Dublin. Wearing pink high-viz jackets and holding candles, they were protesting against the Garda tactics used in attempts to enforce water meter in- stallation in local housing estates. For an hour, the only noise was car drivers beeping support.

The protest was repeated a few days later and then copied by other groups. The pink high-viz jackets, available from Centra stores as part of a cancer awareness campaign, were worn by women at the protests outside Garda stations from Wicklow Town to Clonmel and Cork.

So what has pushed working class women into becoming the most visible aspect of the anti-water charges movement? Partly, women are involved in the water protests because they are rooted in communities. But the water protests are remarkable because local actions are taken with strong awareness of the national and international context.

LookLeft spoke with several women involved in the protests about their motivations. Several did not wish to give their full name. Ailish, a water protestor from the Clarehall area on Dublin’s Northside, summed up an attitude which is common to many ‘pink ladies’.

“I don’t think it’s fair that my children will pay for bankers and speculators,” she said.

“They didn’t gain anything from the Celtic Tiger era. They’ve suffered because there are cutbacks in the health system, 6 there are cutbacks in education, and they’re suffering now. They’re not going to reach their potential. We are letting them down, if we let the government away with what they’re doing, we are letting down our future generations.”

Austerity budgets have targeted in particular low-income households, lone parents, those who are in very vulnerable jobs and public sector workers. Over- represented in each of these categories, working class women have been particu- larly affected.

Added to this is the fact that gender roles in Irish households mean that it’s often women who are faced with the realities of loss of income and higher spending. As Clarehall-based Kim Purdy comments: “Mostly women would organise the money each week and it has to stretch and stretch further. There’s families out there that cannot feed their children properly but they want them to pay a water tax?”

A report published by the ESRI and the Equality Authority last year looked at the gender impact of tax, welfare, and public-sector pay changes between 2009 and 2013. The report found that although tax and welfare systems are not permitted to discriminate by gender, tax-benefit changes affect men and women differently because of differences in patterns of employment, wages and benefits. According to the report, women in couples saw sharper losses in individual disposable income than men in couples across all income levels.

Dr. Sinéad Pembroke, a sociologist at Trinity College Dublin is clear on the gender aspect of austerity: “Capitalism has never benefited women; women have either been traditionally seen as an unpaid workforce to look after the family while the husband goes to work or are given the ‘opportunity’ to work while also performing all the unpaid work in the home sphere. And now the ugly face of capitalism that has come through in the last five years has made conditions even worse for women.”

She added: “There are varying differences in the experience of women and austerity: there are stay-at-home mums who see their partner lose their job or have a reduction in pay; there are lone parents who have had their child benefit cut, meaning there are more difficult choices to make such as whether to go back to work when this means huge childcare costs; there are single young women who face unemployment – what all these have in common is that they are all drawn into a poverty trap.”

While the experience of austerity spurred women into becoming active in the water protests, the confrontation with gardaí as they attempted to enforce meter installation was responsible for the birth of the ‘pink ladies’.

According to Audrey Clancy from the Edenmore Says No campaign in Dublin: “The ‘pink ladies’ came about because during the course of men and women standing up against the corruption that’s being enforced on the people daily, the Garda became violent towards the women. I was one of the women they were violent towards. I was pepper- sprayed. I was punched in the back at the GPO for just standing there. And most recently at a water protest I was punched, which is now in the hands of the [Garda] Ombudsman.”

Ailish added that the aggression is not random: “Any time there’s a protest, when you’re trying to stop water meters, the women are targeted by the gardaí and the Irish Water workers because they know it will rile up the male protesters”. Similar claims of aggression have also been made by other protesters and have been strenuously denied by the gardaí and Irish Water contractors who claim they have suffered acts of violence and in- timidation at the hands of the protesters.

Explaining the adoption of pink high-vis jackets by the protesters, leading anti-water charges activist, Bernie Hughes from Finglas in Dublin, explained that they play multiple roles: “We’re helping cancer awareness. We’re helping people to be safe, as water meter watches happen early in the morning, and the pink brings everybody together and unifies them in a way that people can see them in the street and say ‘pink ladies’.”

Perceptions of failures in Garda conduct have had a significant effect on the protesters. Margaret, a member of the Clarehall Says No campaign group, explained that if someone had previously told her a story about the gardaí being confrontational she would have said “don’t be so ridiculous, but now we see another side.”

A loss of trust in the gardaí could have severe consequences. In many areas gardaí, particularly community gardaí, have spent years trying to create links within communities, but this work has been steadily undermined by resentment of the force’s role protecting meter instal- lations. Pembroke points out that already, many women do not feel comfortable reporting domestic violence or rape to gardaí due to their perception of how the report will be dealt with. The collapse of trust caused by conflict over meter instal- lations can only make matters worse for those who need support.

The depth and extent of mobilisations against the water charges has inspired much thought about the future of the campaign within activist groups. While many proposals are based around the formation of a political movement or alliance, this could undermine the prominence of women.

Women make up only 16% of TDs, with much truth found to the stereotype that men find it easier than women to become involved in formal politics, join political parties and stand for election. Women, instead, are more involved in community politics and when they do join political parties, are less inclined to run for election.

However, the water tax campaign might go some way to addressing these issues. Kim Purdy and Bernie Hughes have been involved in politics for many years, in trade unions and other organisa- tions. In terms of gender and class, they both speak of seeing women involved in the protests grow in confidence, find a voice, and they expect them to refuse to be silenced again.

As Audrey Clancy said: “How I got up to speak I don’t know. I did so because I spoke from my heart about what I feel about saving this country and the people in it. I started, as I said, for my family. And now it’s for everybody else’s family too.”

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