Marching for Choice in Dublin

Niklas Hill writes about the March for Choice in Dublin and encounters with Irish abortion rights activists. Usually, the entries on this blog are in Swedish and occasionally in Norwegian. However, this text is not only targeting a Scandinavian audience.

This photo is licensed under a Creative Commons license. Credit: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid, laughingsquid.com

Last week I went to Dublin to participate in the annual March for Choice. We were eight activists from the Swedish Abortion Rights Network, a network within RFSU. RFSU is the leading SRHR organisation in Sweden and a member of IPPF. Frequent readers of this blog know that I am a board member at the local chapter in Stockholm.

The March for Choice is organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign who works for free, safe and legal abortions in Ireland. Abortions are illegal in Ireland and those who get caught breaking the law can face up to 14 years imprisonment. Criminalisation of abortion is indeed inscribed in the Irish constitution by the 8th amendment. This article was added in 1983, i.e. at a time when abortions had been legal in Sweden for eight years. One might think that this is an unreasonable thing to put into a constitution, but there is actually more misogyny to be found. Article 41.2 for instance states that a women’s place is in the home.

The constitution can only be changed by a referendum, therefore abortion rights activists are calling for a referendum to repeal the 8th. Earlier this year a referendum for marriage equality has been held and it was successful – marriage is no longer a heterosexual privilege in Ireland. So a tail wind is blowing for abortion rights and everybody expected the march to be bigger than last year.

These expectations where exceed, we were more than 10 000 demonstrators. Twice as many as last year! I first realised how many people we actually were when the march took a turn and crossed a bridge so we could see all the people marching in front of us – the crowd was massive. The march featured engaging and committed speakers who did not conceal their anger. History was made when a representative from the Irish travellers community became the first women from her community to hold a public speech on these issues. Being used to Swedish rallies where most speakers are as engaging as the Shipping forecast this was an exciting experience. How will I ever be able to keep myself awake at a demonstration in Sweden again?

However, it is not like that Irish activists are better speakers per se. I learned that the organisers had put a lot of effort in choosing speakers that actually had something to say rather then people representing big organisations or being famous. This approach is somewhat characteristic for ARC.

The Abortion Rights Campaign is an organisation with little resources but strong commitment. Given the level of achievement, I was surprised when I learned that they do not have any employees at all. Compared to these preconditions, it feels privileged to be active in a resourceful organisation like RFSU where we have around ten employees in the Stockholm chapter alone.

The structures of the civil society in Ireland are quite different from those in Scandinavia. I was aware of that, but it became pretty obvious when I was asked about the membership of RFSU. I was kind of embarrassed to tell the actual number (around 3000), because by Swedish standards this is really small. Given how resourceful and widely known our organisation is, we should have many more members (take this as a hint, national board!). However, the Irish activist I spoke to considered this to be a big organisation. As it turns out, NGOs in Ireland tend not to have that many members, it seems like being a member is considered to be equal with being active.

There are, however, a lot of similarities to the voluntary sector in Sweden as well. As one activist puts it: “a lot of organisations are run by men with white moustaches.” Now, the beard fashion over here might be different (with the notable exception of a short-term leader for the Social Democrats) but I think social movements are facing similar challenges in terms of representation everywhere. Therefore I brought with me some copies of my book The Membership Model. I gave away most of them and I also traded one copy for a neat t-shirt advocating free, safe and legal abortions. The book was appreciated and I hope that it will be put to good use.

We also took some RFSU sex education leaflets to Ireland. After all, this is one of RFSU’s core businesses. These materials were received with some giggling and curiosity. Apparently, there is almost no sex education in Irish schools as most of them are run by the Catholic church. One activist told us about their young relative who had finished school only recently. The almost only sex ed she got in her entire time in high school was to write an essay about how to talk a friend out of having an abortion…

The March for Choice was accompanied by a lot of seminars, workshops and performances. One of them was a speak out where anybody could share their own experience from abortion. A speak out is basically a safe space were one can share its experiences without being questioned. Some of the stories were really moving, shocking even. I don’t want to record them publicly here, but they really served as a reminder of why we are fighting for defending abortion rights in the first place.

We were not the only international activists visiting Dublin that week. There were for instance 18 elderly ladies from Spain, a Icelandic gender researcher and various members of the European parliament. Our presence was appreciated by the Irish activists who otherwise can feel a bit isolated on their island. Or solidarity did matter. And it goes both ways: when RFSU’s abortion rights network was attacked last year, the Abortion Rights Campaign expressed their solidarity. We are all part of an international feminist movement and this feels truly empowering.

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Niklas Hill

Niklas Hill är doktorand i pedagogik med fokus på lärande i ideella organisationer. Han är även grundare till bokförlaget Trinambai. Niklas har startat Förening för alla med målet att inspirera fler till ett engagemang i civilsamhället.

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