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What it means to be a woman in 2020

Ahead of International Women's Day tomorrow, three high-profile NI politicians tell us what it means to be a woman in 2020

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First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

First Minister Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster: As we mark International Women's day across the globe tomorrow, let's pause to recognise how far we have come and to reflect on the challenges women still face today. As a woman in politics, I have seen such significant positive change, even just over the course of my lifetime thus far.

When I started out in politics as a young woman, it was not uncommon to be the only woman in the room.

Yet, in 2020, we now have so many incredible and talented women in politics.

I love it when I see so many young women now getting involved and contributing to the politics and policies that will change the world we live in now and shape our future as we move forward.

The restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in January broke new ground, with the election of both a female First Minister and female Deputy First Minister.

Our Northern Ireland Executive is 50% female. The Northern Ireland Assembly has the highest percentage of women elected at any time in our history.

Things are changing - and for the better - not just in politics, but in all sectors, including law, management and business. We must build on these achievements.

Fair participation of women helps to ensure the best possible range of views, experiences and skills are brought to the table. At a time when we are seeking to create an ambitious agenda and long-term vision for building prosperity for Northern Ireland, this is all the more vital.

I hope that young people will look to all our women leaders and be inspired that they, too, can play a leadership role in their lives.

Sometimes, we underestimate the importance this plays on influencing young people. As Hilary Clinton said: "You cannot be what you cannot see."

Yet, we know that more must be done. While achieving 30% representation for women in the Northern Ireland Assembly is good, there is still a journey to go in politics, and so many other sectors, to achieve full participation and representation.

Too often, too many women face barriers. We must work together to tackle and remove those things that are preventing women from achieving their potential, or from getting involved in political life.

Many barriers have been removed; there have been significant achievements and progress. Yet, challenges still exist and new ones have emerged.

I have spoken before of the abhorrent targeting of women in public life on social media. The terrible, demeaning trolling, often based on what women wear, what we look like, along with innuendo, lies and slurs, must stop.

Social media companies must step up and do more. Likewise, we must realise the agenda behind these attacks on women and stand collectively in opposition to these attempts to harass and bully women away from leadership and public life.

We cannot allow these new challenges and faceless bullies to reverse the progress that has been made.

My message to women today echoes the words of Eleanor Roosevelt; that you must do the thing you think you cannot do, to be brave, to step forward, to have the confidence to recognise that you have an important contribution to make to Northern Ireland.

Undoubtedly, women are stronger when we encourage and support each other. Too many women are still stepping back and waiting, believing that they are not ready, instead of seizing the opportunities to play a full part.

To build a Northern Ireland which is thriving, to have the policies that will change and improve lives and to bring about meaningful and positive change that we all want to see will require people to step forward.

I hope that, this weekend, more women will be inspired by the many events and messages to take that step and take on these exciting challenges and opportunities..

Arlene Foster MLA is leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland

Michelle O'Neill: As a woman, mother, daughter and as the joint head of government, there is much to celebrate and be proud of in 2020.

I take enormous pride in the advancement of women in politics, public life, business and local communities in recent years.

In politics in the north, three out of nine permanent secretaries of government departments are women.

Women are to the fore of this new Executive and Assembly.

Arlene and I are the joint heads of government and are joined on the Executive by a further four female ministers and more than 30% of MLAs are now women, so progress is being made.

This is representative of the new style of politics and the new type of government that I and Sinn Fein have been actively promoting and working for right across this island.

Fantastic work has been done in recent years to empower women and bring them into leadership positions - and we must acknowledge that.

But there is still much more work to be done to tackle obstacles to equality for women and, indeed, for all sections of our community.

Patriarchy continues to be a black mark on our society. Closing the gender pay gap and providing affordable childcare are two important areas that we must certainly do more on.

The scourge of misogynistic commentary in the mainstream media, as well as on social media, must be confronted and tackled.

I, like many women, in both my personal and public life, have been the victim of this backward commentary and abuse on social media. This is challenging; it is challenging for myself personally and particularly for my family.

It doesn’t deflect me from carrying out my duties and responsibilities in government and in my role as Leas Uachtaran of the political party with the largest mandate on this island.

I will continue, however, to challenge that abuse and call it out for what it is. And I would encourage all women in public life and, indeed, wider society to do the same. Be confident in yourself and be proud of your achievements. Don’t be deterred.

Women are the backbone of our communities. They are at the coalface every day, working to improve the quality of life of our communities; they bring people together and they provide essential support for those most in need.

I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to that work. Much of it goes under the radar, but is no less essential for all that.

As a political leader, it is my task to fight for and provide the support and resources necessary for these invaluable community champions and I will do all in my power to deliver for all on the basis of equality.

Every day, in my role as joint head of government, I meet and work with civil servants, business leaders and community workers from right across society. And, in doing so, I meet remarkable and passionate women.

Women are the heartbeat of driving sectors across areas including business, health, hospitality, media and much, much more.

In media, on a daily basis, I see the increased involvement of women. More and more women are involved in journalism and the media — a role historically dominated by men.

A free Press is an essential component of society, a free Press which is increasingly representative of that society is a big step forward.

In conclusion, my message to women this International Women’s Day is simple.

To the women labelled aggressive — keep being assertive.

To the women labelled bossy — keep on leading.

To the women labelled difficult — keep telling the truth.

To the women who are labelled too much — keep taking up that space.

And to the women who are labelled awkward — keep asking the awkward questions.

Be proud, be confident and continue to strive forward.

Together, let’s build a society that is equal and inclusive.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Michelle O’Neill MLA is vice-president of Sinn Fein and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

Paula Bradshaw: I was a sensitive child, very much affected by issues I heard on the news, or read about in school around injustices against other girls. I suppose I am thinking about centuries-old customs of feet-binding in China, or female genital mutilation. I always felt a deep sense of angst and powerlessness for those nameless girls.

As I have moved into adulthood and, in particular, into the role of politician, I have had to accept that I cannot solve all the world’s problems. However, I can use my position and influence to push for change within Northern Ireland.

As such, many of the issues that I campaign on relate to social justice. For example, I want to see an inquiry into the mother and baby homes, where mothers had their children taken from them by the state. I want to see the removal of the defence of “reasonable chastisement” (ie banning smacking) and I am pushing for the banning of smoking in cars with under-18s present.

The women whom I admire the most are those who are fighting for social change. I am thinking about Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International and her work around abortion law reform; Charlotte Caldwell and her fight to make medicinal cannabis products available for neurology patients; or Margaret McGuckin, with her high-profile campaign to push for redress and recognition for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse.

There are other women whom I feel that are inspirational in their professionalism and ability to deliver. Women like Suzanne Wylie, chief executive of Belfast City Council, and Marie-Therese McGivern, CEO of Belfast Metropolitan College, are phenomenal in how they have represented our capital city and contributed to the growth of our economy in very challenging circumstances.

It is not easy being a female politician; while it is always a given that it can be a thankless task, gender does come into play in terms of online abuse — much of which is just gratuitously offensive. I have a very simple approach to it: I ignore it and use the mute button.

However, I am very conscious at the minute about mental health and the negative impact trolling can have on the recipients. So, I think we all just need to call it out. The perpetrators are usually weak and powerless themselves.

There will also always be the added challenges of being a mother working in politics. The evening meetings and late sittings in the Chamber are not conductive to family life.

However, all families face some logistical challenges to ensure that children are fed and are safe. My children are now 20 and 17, so they are self-sufficient and only seem to need me now for lifts and money!

On International Women’s Day, I do reflect on what example I am setting for my daughter. Is she empowered? Does she value her worth? Is she happy?

I suppose this is another way that I can use my influence to ensure that there is one more women going out into the world ready for what life has to throw at her.

As I reflect on what drives me forward, my awareness grows that life is short and we all have to make the most of it when we are here on Earth.

My mother passed away a couple of years ago from cancer and, in her last weeks, she talked about just wanting to get to Donegal one last time with her sisters.

So, I suppose my message to others is to accept that invitation, go to that event and make that call to reach out to loved ones.

Paula Bradshaw is Alliance Party MLA for South Belfast

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