[Guest Post by Gaia Charis] Women and Welfare: State-Sanctioned Sexism? An evening with Cork Feminista

The combination of rural living and disability caring has, for me, necessitated only cyber-participation in the activities of Cork Feminista thus far but an invitation from organisers Linda and Jen to come and speak at C.F.’s ‘Women and Welfare’ discussion evening proved too good to resist…and what an evening, what an audience!

I promised Linda that I’d write up the key points of my presentation as a blogpost but as I thought about it I realised that the subject matter was indivisible from the event itself as we all, in both our diversity as people and the commonality of our experience, embodied so much of what I had wanted to highlight.

My own personal view of feminism is that its ultimate aim should be its own negation, that it should be so successful that it no longer needs to exist. This is a perspective that I would bring to any aspect of social inequality and it’s one which underpins my own belief that every approach matters when it comes to understanding, and attempting to eradicate, unjust and destructive dynamics of social power. The personal, the political, the everyday and the academic, the analytical and the activist all have their role to play, as it’s only through a holistic analysis and understanding of what is wrong that we have any chance of putting it right.

And plenty is wrong.

I could see from the bio of Liz Madden, my co-speaker, that she would be focussing on the subject matter of her Master’s thesis (now there’s a patriarchal term that needs changing) in which she had explored aspects of single parenthood in relation to One Parent Family Payment, and so I decided to look at the relationship that exists between gender inequality and caring, particularly in relation to disability. It’s a subject close to my heart as it reflects so much of my own personal situation and is so very pertinent at a time when single parents, the disabled and their carers are easy targets for the moral and economic bankruptcy of current social policy-making.

I don’t think a sociological gene has been identified yet but I’m sure my DNA is riddled with it (or maybe it’s because I’m a Virgo) but either way my first impulse was to analyse the evening’s title and take my presentation from there. So…


Women and Welfare

State-Sanctioned Sexism


Women and Welfare.

There’s more than a hint of irony in the combination of the terms women and welfare. Women are particularly vulnerable to dependence on State welfare at all points in their lives and regardless of their class, race, culture, sexuality, age or professional status precisely because our social systems and ideologies continue to position them as the ultimate custodians of the welfare of others.

From the cradle to the grave caring remains the overwhelming responsibility of women.

Whether it’s a relationship breakdown, sudden illness, accident or incapacity in someone close, an aged or infirm parent or partner or the birth of a disabled child…the precariousness of existence is overwhelmingly coped with by women. The impact on their lives, both financially and socially, is enormous and it’s a problem that can only increase as both welfare payments, supports and services are either cut to the bone or removed completely. Any of these events can derail a woman’s income and career opportunities in ways from which they never recover and their impact will last a lifetime as pension entitlements and financial and  social independence are blown out of the water.

Clearly, there are males who are affected too but their numbers are very much less and they tend to be viewed very differently. Nationally, the last comprehensive survey of non-professional carers of the disabled, sick and elderly in Ireland, undertaken in 2009 by the Carers Association, showed that 80% of Ireland’s 161,00 known carers were women. And let me emphasise here that there are many who do not show up in official statistics and that this does not include the care of dependent children which falls to single parents, who, as the 2011 census showed, are 86.5% female.

As I pointed out in my presentation, the non-professional care of the disabled and the incapacitated is, for the vast majority of people who do it, simply a necessity where the circumstances of life require someone to step up to the mark and do the job because it needs doing and usually because, in the face of either non-existent or wholly inadequate State services, there’s no-one else to do it. It’s certainly not a career choice and, although carers do what they do because they care about the person for whom they provide care, the acute demands and limitations mean that it is rarely the lifestyle they would have chosen for themselves.

And whilst the 20% of carers who are male suffer from the same social and economic deprivations that accompany the doing of ‘women’s work’ their image is very different. A female carer is just doing what women do and is rarely deemed worthy of comment, a male carer is a walking saint.

When it comes to single parenthood the image dichotomy worsens as whereas it may be unseemly to bash the carers of the sick and disabled, it’s always open season on the single mother…a phenomenon that ignores the blindingly obvious fact that all children have two parents. But there is never any equivalently vociferous condemnation of their invisible fathers and whilst the single mother may be depicted as the source of all social ills the lone-parenting Dad is revered as a holy wonder.

When it comes to ‘welfare’ women really can’t win, being cast as the place where the social buck stops and then being devalued and derided for it. And worse, actually needing some small State stipend to exist upon while they provide society with the services and qualities that humanise it and bring quality of life to all those that the State would otherwise leave in its fiscal gutter…and that’s not including the vital task of raising the next generation.

And if you think that this is extreme then take a look at policy-making in relation to disability caring.

State-Sanctioned Sexism.

I never tell anyone what to think but then when it comes to the State’s relationship to disability caring it’s hardly necessary anyway. So at the Cork Feminista discussion evening I gave these examples.

In the dying days of the last administration, when the economic meltdown caused by greed and privileged skulduggery began to run out of control, a rash of media articles appeared which voiced concern at the likely rise in male suicide as general unemployment, and male unemployment in particular, rose sharply. These were accompanied by increasing social anger at a rising welfare bill paid to people perceived as doing nothing for it. The incumbent Minister for Social Protection, Eamon O’Cuiv, responded with the wizard idea of an enhanced Community Employment scheme, whereby the unemployed could avail of a non-means tested payment of €210 for a working week of just 19.5 hours and were to be allowed to work part-time on top of this without losing their benefit payment.

The placements suggested for this work were childcare, sports clubs, after-school programmes, day centres for the elderly and disabled and meals on wheels, all clearly much needed services and all clearly falling within the remit of caring for others. The working conditions of these placements would, of course, fall within employment legislation with regard to rest and meal breaks etc. And although they were, of course, theoretically open to women, the scheme was a knee-jerk response to the problem of rising male unemployment.

Now contrast these terms of remuneration for caring placements with those of the nation’s non-professional  carers  who even back in 2009 were providing a staggering 4 million hours per week of vital care to the disabled, sick and elderly, an amount which was saving the State nearly €3 billion per year on the cost of services to which each and every one of those cared for was entitled to seek from the State had they chosen to. The reality today is that the slashing of services and supports to society’s most vulnerable means that these figures will be even higher as those close to those in need of care, usually women who have to give up their own jobs and life-chances, step in to fill the gaps. And when they do they enter a Twilight Army of workers who do not figure anywhere in the official world of ‘work’ and thus have no entitlement to either rights, remuneration or rest. The 2011 Census statistics for carers are not yet available but national carers organisations are predicting a rise in the number of carers from 161,000 in 2009 to an estimated 274,000 in 2011, an increase of nearly 70% which will, certainly in part, have been fuelled by economic cuts and policy changes. This rise will, of course, increase the concomitant saving to the State on services provided, taking the contribution that carers make to the national economy up to nearly 5 billion euros per annum. And let’s not forget that this huge leap may take the proportion of female carers over the already established 80%.

Statistics show (and as one of their number I can vouch for the truth) that many carers provide up to 14 hours per day of actual hands-on care with the added necessity of being constantly ‘on call’ if the person they care for has high dependency needs and/or personal safety issues. With the lack of supports being acute it’s a 24/7/365 job for many, with no meal breaks, no rest times, no holidays and, for most of them, no remuneration because the conditions for the claiming of the State’s Carers Allowance (the only benefit they can claim as they are not available for work) are means-tested, particularly against a partner’s income, and are restrictive.

In 2009 this resulted in only 27% of all carers being in receipt of a Carers Allowance and of these only 64% received the full amount. Thus 73% of the nation’s carers received no financial recompense for the work they were doing, despite the fact that they may have given up their own employment in order to do it. These figures will undoubtedly have worsened in current times as welfare claims are dealt with ever more harshly and claimants are routinely forced through the processes of appealling for that which they are rightfully entitled to.

Compared to the 19.5 hours that Eamon O’Cuiv was willing to offer Community workers for caring, a Carers Allowance claimant can only work for 15 hours. If the claimant takes a job of 16 hours per week then their whole allowance is forfeit. And whereas Community Employment proposals disregarded part-time earnings the Carers Allowance claimant must declare theirs for scrutiny lest they surpass the designated threshold, UNLESS they are willing to work as an HSE Home Help (ie. doing more of what they already do)….in which case they can keep the cash.  But bear in mind that the demands of caring leave precious little time, energy or opportunity for much else anyway !

The €210 that the then Minister was willing to offer for 19.5 hours of work provided an hourly remuneration of approximately €11. The Carers Allowance is currently €204 per week (if anyone’s lucky enough to get the full amount) and if you’re a carer who has no choice but to give 24/7/365 coverage you are doing so at an hourly rate of just €1.21 per hour and it is taxable. BUT you’re not ‘working’, which is just as well as your pay and conditions would be illegal if you were.

Below is a copy of a letter that I sent to Eamon O’Cuiv regarding the gross discrimination against carers within the welfare system. I have also included his reply.

Dear Minister,

May I respectfully point out that by your definition, an unemployed person undertaking 19.5 hours of caring in a daycentre is performing ‘waged labour’ but a Carer undertaking the same work in the home is not, despite the fact that they may have had to lose their own employment in the process and may be providing constant care every hour of every day of every week. May I also point out that if such a Carer ceased to provide this care the state would be legally obligated to take over and that those employed by it to replace the said carer are then also undertaking ‘waged labour’.

I would be interested to hear your explanation of this interesting paradox.

Yours sincerely,

Gaia Charis.


Dear Gaia

I would like to thank you for your email. I fully appreciate the work of Carers.

I think, sometimes, it is overlooked that the Carer’s Allowance is basically a social welfare payment introduced to help people care for their family members and was never intended as a wage…

Mise le meas,

Eamon O’Cuiv TD

Minister for Social Protection.


The current situation for both single parents and carers (as well as the disabled themselves) is even worse and the bad news is regularly delivered by the female incumbents of the State’s top ‘caring’ jobs of Social Protection and Health and Disability. With Joan Burton telling single mums that they must venture out into what she portrayed as the scary world of work when their children are seven (Where are the jobs? Where is the childcare? Where are the jobs that pay enough to pay for the childcare? And what happens when children are sick or on school holidays and teacher training days ?) and whilst Kathleen Lynch announces funding cuts for Respite services and the complete removal of all funding for services to eighteen year old disabled school leavers the future for women and welfare looks bleak…and bleaker still when our privileged political sisters  are willing to prop up the patriarchal values that so devalue the worth of what women currently contribute to society.

In the meantime hundreds of mothers of autistic children whose profoundly deficient sleep patterns require all-night vigils are routinely denied Domiciliary Care Allowance on the grounds that being up all night, every night is ‘normal’. And it’s not hard to guess who will have to stay at home with the young adult disabled who will now have absolutely nowhere to go. Nor will we be surprised at the blame that will inevitably be heaped upon single mothers in a few years time when disaffected young people fail to toe the State line, which of course will be the product of either their mother’s absence if working or their feckless welfare dependence if not.

State-sponsored sexism? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.


And finally, as I asked the audience, why are we discussing this at all? What’s the purpose? What do we hope to achieve by it?

In the first blogpost I ever wrote for Cork Feminista I quoted the late Jack Holland, author of ‘Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice’, in which he described the activism of women in Ancient Rome where they…

‘…protested their fate…entered the public sphere and made history…intervened in wars and stopped them…took to the streets in protest at government policy and changed it…subverted the authority of their fathers…even sought satisfaction in their personal relationships.’

It sounds depressingly familiar. Two thousand years later we’re still doing feminist Groundhog Day and despite the notion that feminism comes in waves and is a relatively recent historical phenomenon it’s a fact that women have resisted their oppression for as long as it has existed, which is a very long time.

As I said on the night women’s resistance has won a lot of battles but, a couple of thousand years on, it’s clearly not winning the war. Why? How do we come to live in societies where caring for others is so derided, devalued and exploited? How do individuals, both male and female, come to accede to, and participate in, this rotten system?

When my own disabled son was born I was close to completing a doctorate in which I was researching the psychological impact of gendering. Activism changes actions but real and lasting change requires change within, not just in the way that people think but even more deeply, in the ways that they learn to construct their sense of self. Patriarchy is not written in the body, but in the mind.

Which is where Linda gave me the heads up that I was running out of time…and invited me back to speak on the psychology of gendering at Cork Feminista’s First Anniversary celebrations in September.

See you there!

Gaia Charis     www. gaiacharis.com

This entry was posted in CF Meetings, Disability, Politics, Social Welfare and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to [Guest Post by Gaia Charis] Women and Welfare: State-Sanctioned Sexism? An evening with Cork Feminista

  1. Persephone Magdalene says:

    Another fantastic article Gaia, and how unsurprising that Eamonicus O’Cuivicus was able to mansplain away the excellent central point in your letter with the utterance ” I fully appreciate the work of Carers…” My ears rang with his unspoken conclusion to that sentence…

    But actually, I wanted to ask whether you are not just a little ashamed that in spite of your level of education and experience that you ‘overlooked’ the fact that carers are not entitled to a wage on the basis of their not doing ‘real’ work (they are merely doing CARING after all) in the ‘real’ world (they don’t leave the home to do their ‘work’)? Shame!

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