Monica McWilliams co-founded the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and was one of few women at the table for the multi-party peace negotiations leading to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
You’ve been an activist since you were a teenager in the 1960s. What were you fighting for then?
I was campaigning for voting equality in Northern Ireland, and for fair employment. At the time, only property owners could vote. I campaigned with my family, and we were inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States at that time.
When did your activism move into campaigning for women’s rights?
That began in the mid-1970s. The government did not plan to extend the new Sex Discrimination Act to Northern Ireland, which would have left women in Northern Ireland without the legal protections that women in the rest of the UK gained. So I campaigned for that to be extended to us. I also campaigned for survivors of rape, and support services for women who were living with intimate-partner violence. At the time, we had no support services like Women’s Aid or Rape Crisis centres in Northern Ireland.
How does that advocacy for women, particularly relating to domestic life, link with women’s involvement in public decision-making?
We were conscious that, at the time, there were no women in public posts. However, women were very active in grassroots, community-based movements that crossed divides, including religion, which was not crossed by other groups. At that grassroots level, we created strong networks. Women’s activism then, in the 1970s, sowed the seeds that 25 years later led to the formation of the Women’s Coalition who were elected to the multi-party talks leading to the Peace Agreement.
'Women’s activism then, in the 1970s, sowed the seeds that 25 years later led to the formation of the Women’s Coalition who were elected to the multi-party talks leading to the Peace Agreement.'
You’ve been involved in global activism with women’s groups, including training Syrian women peace negotiators and working with grassroots peace groups in Colombia. What happens when peace activists take their work across borders?
When women see what other women with similar struggles have done, they see what is also possible for themselves. Women should be able to take their knowledge and skills to the mainstream.
You’ve spoken about the four Cs – culture, cash, childcare and confidence – that women need in order to be a part of public decision-making. Why are those barriers particular to women?
The lack of cash prevents people from running for public office, and it’s often women who don’t have the money to do that. Childcare is often a barrier where women have a larger share of the domestic work. Male-dominated culture is an issue – men in power will not give up power easily. Confidence is hard to come by for women. Women running for public office are too often subjected to intimidation and humiliation through bullying and insults which serves to keep women candidates out of public life.
Women are more likely to speak up about abuse now. But it is still a major issue for women in public life. It's 100 years since some women gained the vote in the UK, but equality is an unfinished business.
Registration for the Peace and Beyond international conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 10 - 12 April 2018, is now open. Monica will join the conference on day two where she will be chairing the session on Engendering The Peace Process.
International Women's Day is 8 March. The United Nations' theme for 2018 is 'Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives'.
After co-founding the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and joining the multi-party peace negotiations leading to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, Monica McWilliams was one of nine politicians involved in the Northern Ireland peace process who were jointly awarded the John F. Kennedy Library Profile in Courage Award. She was elected to the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly and was a joint recipient of the Frank Cousins Peace Award. She helped to draft the advice on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and is currently Emeritus Professor, Transitional Justice Unit at Ulster University.