A programme addressing the under-representation of women in politics in rural Ireland demystifies local politics and helps creating tangible change in society.
Tara Farrell is the chair of AONTAS, the National Adult Learning Association in Ireland and Deputy CEO of Longford Women’s Link.
She is also on the Steering Group of See Her Elected (SHE), a programme encouraging women to participate in political and public life at local level.
In Ireland, about 24% of seats on local councils are held by women. We asked Farrell about the methods SHE uses in making political participation exciting and accessible and her thoughts on change-oriented adult education.
Why is it important to have equal representation of men and women in local politics?
“It is not just about achieving the balance, but we believe that having that balance is central to building that local democratic process. You need to have the equal representation of women in terms of leadership and perspective. That ensures that local parliaments are more responsive to the needs of local people.
In Longford Women’s Link we started looking at this issue in 2009. A group of women came together and decided that they were tired of not feeling represented because the gender balance wasn’t there. They wanted to know more about how decisions are made in their communities and they wanted to have a greater say. The SHE programme was established in 2019.
We consider ourselves a community–led, rural, feminist initiative. We are providing pathways for women into political life, building women’s capacity to participate. The important question for us is how can women make sure that their voices are heard?”
How does SHE encourage women into politics?
“In March 2020, we started the online SHESchool to be able to continue our work online during the pandemic. We knew there were women who had curiosity but who might not physically attend a course in politics. So, we positioned SHESchool to demystify local politics. We made sure that the course was very informal, open and welcoming. We also addressed fears of technology.
The course was tuned to the needs of the learner and what women wanted to hear. There was information given on the work of local councils, but there was a lot of time given for discussion.
The initial feedback we got was that people wanted more discussion time, so we extended the class by 30 minutes. The tutor stayed, but just to make sure everybody got speaking time.
Now participants are constantly asking what they can do next. Some people are considering running for election, but others just wanted to get a better understanding of what was going on in their communities. Some are interested in becoming part of a campaign team.
Knowledge of the system is critical in empowering women to take part in politics. Support structures are important as well, things like training and mentoring, as well as forming alliances, creating that critical mass of women who want change.“
What does change-oriented adult education mean to you?
“When we got feedback from our first SHESchool participants, about 85 percent said they were motivated to learn more about politics, and they wanted to get more involved. We have managed to take the fear out of politics.
I do think we have captured a lot of the definition of change-oriented adult education, which means empowering people to change their attitudes and perspectives.
When you talk about change-oriented adult education, the tutor is the key. Our tutor Michelle Maher has played a key role in facilitating the discussion, ensuring that all voices are heard, and that element of peer learning has been established.
Meeting like–minded women was one of the key elements of success in SHESchool. Maher was able to create the right environment online – a comfortable space for women to discuss politics.
Covid has been difficult for everyone, but if it had not been for Covid, we wouldn’t have moved the SHESchool online as quickly as we did. When a crisis happens and you have no choice but to find a way through it, you tend to become more innovative and creative because you are forced to. That is an important part of the whole spectrum of lifelong learning.”
- The SHE programme was established by Longford Women’s Link and an advocacy group called 50:50 North West, which is advocating for 50:50 gender balance in politics.
- The goal of SHE is to empower women in the rural constituencies of the North West and Midlands Ireland to engage in electoral politics. The increase in female representation in elections gained in the past years has been mainly in urban constituencies.
- The free online SHESchool had 120 participants between March and August 2020.