‘Lack of rural services putting women at risk of poverty’

Women in rural Ireland are at a disadvantage in accessing education, training, employment, health, social services and social events, Louise Lennon of Irish Rural Link told a meeting of National Women’s Council members in Longford recently.

Lennon said the disservice further excludes rural women from society and puts them at risk of poverty.

She said such isolation is compounded by a lack of essential services in rural areas including: public transport and poor broadband quality.

Highlighting the findings of the national 2016 survey on income and living conditions, the policy and communications officer stressed that people living in rural areas have higher at-risk rates of poverty than those in urban areas.

In the Border, Midlands and Western region (BMW), the at-risk of poverty rate was 22.3%; compared to 14.4% in the southern and eastern region, she said.

The BMW region also had higher rates of consistent poverty at 10.6%; compared to 7.6% in the southern and eastern region.

Lone-parent households were considered particularly vulnerable.

The midlands and south-east regions are still experiencing unemployment rates above the state average – 7.3% and 7.7% respectively.

Longford had the highest unemployment rate recorded in Census 2016 at almost 30%,” said Lennon.

Precarious work

While more women are now working full time; 21% of those working part time are under-employed, Lennon told the gathering.

In rural areas, jobs tend to be of lower pay and more precarious hours than in urban areas.

“Employment in accommodation, food, retail and wholesale, lower-manufacturing, health and social care tend to be the main sectors of employment.

“There is very little alternative unless they commute long distances – which is not always an option as women often take on caring responsibilities, either of children or elderly parents,” Lennon said.

Highlighting the Government’s action plan for rural development – ‘Realising our Rural Potential’ – Lennon said that employment opportunities for women tend to be concentrated in towns and cities.

“This makes it harder for women living in rural areas with small children to access these job opportunities,” she said.

Lennon stressed that the value placed on these jobs is “often lower” too.

“In terms of jobs in caring profession – such as childcare, home help and carers – more value must be placed on these jobs.

A lack of public transport and affordable childcare makes it difficult for people in lower paid jobs to get to work; and also for women to get back to work.

“Lack of high-speed broadband also makes it more difficult for women in rural areas to work from home,” she said.

A more supportive, accessible approach needs to be taken to education and training, according to Lennon who called for more funding to be made available for community education.

Mental health impact

Limited means of transport can also make it more difficult for women to access childcare services, Lennon stated.

The high cost of childcare can often mean it is not financially worthwhile for a woman to remain in, or take up, employment – especially if the position is low-paid or at minimum wage.

Lennon also emphasised that rural isolation can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health.

“The stigma surrounding mental health and suicide is still very prevalent especially in rural areas. The stigma around asking for help, or talking about problems, has not changed.

Living in a rural area can be a double-edged sword when it comes to social issues.

“On the one hand, tight-knit communities can be supportive; but, there can also be a stigma attached  to seeking help. Women may fear they will be treated differently.

“This is especially true if the woman needs to get a lift or needs childcare while she attends appointments,” she said.

Longford Women’s Link

Lennon also highlighted that there are opportunities for women in rural area – but more supports must be put in place first.

This includes community education to help overcome barriers. She praised the services provided by Longford Women’s Link.

Entrepreneur programmes and self-employment also have important roles to play, according to Louise.

In western counties, self-employment has increased faster than in other parts of the country. This is mainly due to the fall in employment during and after the economic crisis.

Although micro enterprises and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are key employers in rural areas; Lennon says local enterprise offices, ETBs (education and training boards) must work together to encourage the setting up of new businesses.

More places, she said are needed on the Acorn programme which has helped develop agri tourism, artisan food and drink production and craft enterprise in many rural areas.

Irish Rural Link is currently lead partner in an EU-funded project, called ‘MICRO‘.

“The aim of MICRO is to promote growth and employment in rural areas by leveraging under-utilised EU opportunities and promoting micro enterprises participation in the European Single Market.

“Open educational resources have been developed to help micro and craft type enterprises in rural areas to foster their chances of growth,” she said.

Women in Farming groups

“Different women’s groups, such as all the regional women in farming networks, have also been established. They are giving women a space to share experiences and get their voices out there,” she said.

Local Link companies across the country are also delivering vital public transport supports to rural areas.

“The number of services and routes provided by Local Link companies have continued to increase in the past number of years. More funding is required for Local Link so that it can continue to expand on this,” Lennon told the gathering.

See http://www.locallink.ie to find your Local Link and timetables.