May 20, 2024

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar says proposed constitutional amendments a chance to delete ‘very old-fashioned, very sexist language about women’.

Voters in Ireland are casting ballots in twin referendums on proposals to replace constitutional references to the definition of the family and women’s role in the home.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar described Friday’s polls, which deliberately fall on International Women’s Day, as a chance to do away with “very old-fashioned, very sexist language about women”.

The two proposals, called the family amendment and the care amendment, would make changes to the text of Article 41 in the country’s socially conservative, 87-year-old founding document.

The first asks citizens to broaden the definition of family by removing a reference to marriage as the basis “on which the family is founded” and replace it with a clause that says families can be founded “on marriage or on other durable relationships”.

The second would remove a reference to women’s role in the home as a key support to the state. It would delete a statement that “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home” and add a clause saying the state will strive to support “the provision of care by members of a family to one another”.

Polls opened at 07:00 GMT and close at 22:00 GMT with results in both votes expected by late Saturday. Citizens who are 18 or older – about 3.3 million people – are eligible to vote.

Social transformation

The referendums are the latest to tackle outdated legislation in Ireland, where the Roman Catholic Church was once all-powerful. Since becoming a republic in 1937, Ireland has transformed from a conservative, overwhelmingly Catholic country to an increasingly diverse and socially liberal society.

The social transformation has been reflected in a series of constitutional changes in a country where single women until 1973 had to resign from their jobs upon getting married and married women were disqualified from applying for vacancies.

In 1995, Irish voters legalised divorce in a referendum. Twenty years later, they backed same-sex marriage, and in 2018, they repealed a ban on abortions.

“A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, and nothing less is acceptable in our constitution,” Orla O’Connor, director of Ireland’s National Women’s Council said on Wednesday while canvassing for a “yes” vote in central Dublin.

All the major political parties back the changes in Friday’s votes with recent opinion polls predicting a smooth passage for both proposals.

Turnout in focus

However, a low-profile campaign before the votes has not appeared to engage the electorate and could see a low turnout. In the past, low turnouts have boosted the proportion of people voting for the status quo.

“No” campaigners argue the concept of “durable relationship” is undefined and confuses voters and that women and mothers are being “cancelled” from the constitution.

Disability rights activists have also argued that the care amendment appears to portray disabled people as a burden on families with the state abdicating its role in providing care.

“I am confident that the sexist, harmful language of Article 41.2 will, in the future, be fixed,” Professor Siobhan Mullally, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway’s School of Law, told the Reuters news agency.

“I am not so confident, however, that a future government will fix our continuing failure to commit to supporting the public good of care work – in families and communities.”

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