By Christina Kerrigan and Chelsea McDonagh
We both remember when we first learned about the suffragette movement at the age of thirteen and fourteen. We didn’t really get it and in all honesty it’s taken another ten years for us to really understand the significance. Women were imprisoned, went on hunger strike, and one died whilst fighting for the right for middle class women and women who owned property, to vote. Middle class women and women who owned property. This wouldn’t have included many, or indeed any Traveller women.
It was the realisation and understanding that the majority wouldn’t always stand up for the rights of Travellers. The realisation that if we didn’t stand up for ourselves and demand to be heard, that’d we’d continue to be failed by the system and those who uphold it. There’s a wonderful quote by the former Irish President Mary Robinson, which highlighted the role that Women played in her election in 1990:
“I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system” Mary Robinson
This quote draws attention to the role that women have to play in changing the system. The role that Traveller women have to play in changing things. Throughout history women have often been at the forefront of change, not only for their families and communities but for their countries.
Through our work at the Traveller Movement we have gone from having very little knowledge or interest in politics, having internalised the idea that politics wasn’t for people like us, to becoming invested in, and key promoters of #OperationTravellerVote. Growing up neither of us remember our families ever talking about politics, or even voting in elections. The topic seemed so boring because we didn’t understand how it worked or how it affected our community. Since then we have attended numerous events in parliament, and have played leading roles in advocating for educational rights of Traveller children, to making recommendations on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, through participation in the ‘Women on the Law in the Making’ campaign.
Community empowerment started much closer to home. It started with reluctant conversations over the dinner table our family members who didn’t see the relevance or point, to Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages. We have spoken to our families and explained the importance of why their vote matters, and how we, as Travellers, have a right to have our voices heard. It’s only been a few months but we’ve had siblings, cousins, aunts and grandparents registering to vote and keenly awaiting their day at the polls.
But these conversations do not and will not end at the polls. It is about empowering Travellers to engage with politics and to develop political literacy – Christina’s mother, who lives in Ireland, shows a keen interest in not only Brexit but in the general affairs of our current government. She sees how the histories of the two countries are intertwined, and how politics affects our lives.
There’s growing change and many Travellers are beginning to see the necessity of voting and having our voices heard. For far too long, like many other working class and BME people, we have found ourselves falling victim to successive government policies which only serve to further marginalise us and push people further into poverty. #OperationTravellerVote is about more than this election, and in many ways it’s about more than a single party. It is a movement. It’s about mobilising Traveller votes and we hope it ends with Travellers taking up their seats in parliament.
Christina Kerrigan is the Community Development & Partnerships officer with the Traveller Movement
Chelsea McDonagh is the Education Policy & Campaigns officer with the Traveller Movement
This article first appeared in Each Other in December 2019