Northern Ireland's women: homemakers or warmakers?

May 22, 1998

A study of the role of women's groups in the peace process shows women are not necessarily the peacemakers they traditionally have been assumed to be.

Ruth Jacobson, a research associate at the department of peace studies at Bradford University, found women on both sides of the divide unwilling to compromise their beliefs in order to achieve peace. Unionist women were insistent about their desire to remain linked to the United Kingdom; nationalists on their desire to form a United Ireland.

Jacobson says there is a public face of masculinity in Northern Ireland - many of the marches are conducted by all-male groups and opposed by all-male groups. "But look behind that and their women are there,'' she says. "In some cases they are egging them on. Or you find women actually being prepared to initiate attacks on people from other places who have come to live in their area.''

This status quo - men in front, women behind - is harder to challenge than in most communities, she argues. "If you live in a Protestant loyalist household and the men of the household have always marched and you have always made the tea and sandwiches, the risks of making a fuss about it are quite high." They range, she says, from physical violence, to being named as a traitor, to being ostracised by one's family.

But women's political groups did force the parties involved in the peace talks at least to consider previously sidelined issues, especially local community issues, because the women are such an instrinsic part of those communities.

This could cause them problems in the long run. How will wives and mothers cope with the release of political prisoners back into families after 15 or more years away? Anecdotal reports from other countries that have experienced similar demobilisations suggest that Ulster's women may be facing the risk of more domestic violence.

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