Speech at a Reception to mark International Women’s Day
Áras an Uachtaráin, 8th March, 2015
You are all most welcome here today to Áras an Úachtaráin as we mark and celebrate one of the most important events in the annual calendar of events held here in Áras an Uachtaráin, the International Women's Day reception. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to acknowledge all those citizens across the world who have fought, and continue to fight, tirelessly for women’s equality and for the elimination of the profound and persistent global injustice against women that has prevailed and still exists in so many parts of our planet.
For this year’s International Women’s Day event in Áras an Uachtaráin it is a great pleasure for me using the day to honour all women, their lives, their struggles and their progress, to honour in a special way the achievements and the contribution of some of Ireland’s most successful women athletes.
Within your solidarity with all women you have made an immense contribution to the Irish people through your sporting achievements. This has been a source of great celebration, motivation and pride to your fellow citizens. In doing so, you have also made an important contribution to the cause of equality for, not only women but all citizens in our society.
The achievement of equality and universal respect for rights is one of the great ethical challenges of our contemporary world. International Women’s Day provides us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on the struggles and the progress made in advancing the position of women around the world, and, even more importantly, to assess the challenges that must be met before we can claim to be a truly inclusive global society.
Through the hard-fought victories of feminism and all those who have campaigned for equality, we have reached the point where all issues affecting the rights of women are at least open for discussion and can no longer be suppressed or obscured. Yet there is so much to be done to achieve real equality, and there are so many areas where respect for the rights of women remains an aspiration rather than a reality.
This afternoon is a useful opportunity, to reflect on the issue of gender equality in sport, an area where much progress has been made in recent years, but one where there remain many challenges to be met and where we, as a society, certainly cannot yet afford to be complacent.
As to the important of sport – as President, I attend a great number of sporting events including, in just the past few weeks, the Six Nations’ Rugby matches where our victories over France and England were a cause for much national euphoria; and in soccer, I attended the President’s Cup in Oriel Park last week and this weekend I was at the Galway United versus Derry City match for the start of the League. Such events make us realise how sport, in so many ways, mirrors those qualities which are so important for good citizenship and the creation of adequately functioning societies.
To be a good sportswoman or sportsman requires dedication, self discipline, teamwork and the ability to persevere in the face of adversity. It is through partaking in sporting activities that many young children begin to learn how to participate in a society where circumstances and events will lead to their sometimes being triumphant winners in life, and just as important, sometimes gracious losers.
Not all those who partake in sport will go on to achieve glory on the playing fields and the running tracks and in the sporting stadiums, but they will all acquire skills that will assist them in so many other life accomplishments, including in the areas of business, culture, public service and education. It is therefore important that we have good ambassadors for Irish sport, who will be role models for our young citizens, and particularly young women, to become involved in sports and physical exercise.
Regrettably, despite the extraordinary sporting achievements of Irish women, both individual athletes and those involved in team sports, who have made us so proud on the national and international stage, Irish sportswomen still struggle to attain the same levels of recognition as their male counterparts.
Although that situation is beginning to change, the world of sport is still considered, by many, including sections of the media, to be chiefly the domain of men; a world in which women’s sport is regarded as playing a secondary role, their achievements being lauded momentarily but often failing to sustain long term public interest or receive the appropriate support. At supporters’ level, media coverage of sport also remains concentrated on male rather than female participation.
Gender differentiation in sport can begin at a very young age. Many girls receive limited opportunities to engage in a wide variety of sports, and in some settings may even be actively discouraged from taking part in activities such as soccer, rugby or wrestling, others find themselves succumbing to pressure to fit into a society where certain sports are perceived as unfeminine.
Thankfully, as a society, we are increasingly challenging traditional public perceptions of women in sport. Initiatives such as the Sport for Business campaign to achieve parity of esteem between men’s and women’s sport and changes in Government and Sports Council policy are making, and have made, a difference.
As has been the case for all of the historical advances for equality made by women, it has been the example and the achievement of women athletes themselves that has made the greatest difference.
Groundbreaking landmarks such as Katie Taylor’s fifth world title, and our historic defeat of the Black Ferns in last year’s Women's Rugby World Cup have been followed of course by Ireland’s recent bid to host the 2017 World Cup for Women. These are just some examples from many – of events that are changing the stereotypical attitudes which have been so detrimental to the participation of women in sport.
There can be no doubt that the profile of women in sport continues to change and progress and as a society we owe a great debt of gratitude to the positive role models in the room today. Your dedication, hard work and success are critical as we continue to progress towards a landscape where women’s sport will be treated with equal respect, achieve fairer media coverage and be seen by more people.
Far more importantly, you are inspiring girls and women of all ages to follow your lead. For example, there are now 150,000 registered Ladies Gaelic football members, with numbers continuing to increase every year and 50% of Athletics Ireland members are female. Not alone are you serving as role-models for girls and other women, but men and boys are also drawing inspiration from your efforts and achievements, and the Irish public obviously agree with this when Katie Taylor was chosen by them as Ireland’s most admired sports person in the 2014 Sport Sentiment Index.
These, and all of your achievements deserve to be celebrated not only as sporting accomplishments and as steps towards equality, and also as important contributions to public health. We know that the World Health Organisation has stated that physical activity “interacts positively with strategies to improve diet, discourages the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs, helps reduce violence, enhances functional capacity and promotes social interaction and integration”. There is therefore a real societal, as well as individual, benefit to an increased involvement of women in organised sports and physical exercise.
Ten years ago, research conducted by the ESRI revealed that just one in five women met the National Activity Guidelines, while an equal number were effectively sedentary. Last year, figures from the Irish Sports Monitor (ISM) showed that almost 1 in 3 women are now deemed to meet National Guidelines through sport, while just one in eight women are sedentary. The ISM also reported that 2013 showed the highest recorded participation in sport rate for women, with almost 43% taking part in a sport at least once a week.
There is, then, reason to be optimistic as we survey that changed landscape, even if there is still a significant journey to be made if we are to achieve equality in both participation by, and support for, women in the sporting arena. In that regard, we must remember that the cause of equality carried duties for men as well as for women.
That is why I was delighted as an expression of solidarity, and in a spirit of a commitment to women's rights, to accept the invitation of UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women Mlambo-Ngcuka to become one of the group of 10 Champion World Leaders for UN Women’s HeforShe campaign.
HeForShe has been described as a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all. HeForShe includes fathers who want to raise empowered daughters, leaders who know their societies will be stronger when there are as many women in business and parliaments – and in sports and cultural life - as men.
It seems to me self-evident, yet it is inconsistently acknowledged, that the pursuit of gender equality involves at the most fundamental level, men as well as women. For men, all men, the challenge, in the myriad ways we live our lives, conduct our relationships, engage with our friends and colleagues, is to examine critically what we can do for women’s empowerment and how much we stand to gain. Men continue to hold most of the senior positions within our sporting organisations at the moment and therefore, in this interim, it is men who bear a great responsibility in our current circumstances to advance equality in their policies and practices.
Finally, may I thank you, therefore, for your great spirit of active participation and the valuable contribution you make, not only to Ireland’s sporting reputation, but to our society as we continue to strive for a future defined by equality and respect for all our citizens. I thank you for your solidarity with all those who work for full equality on our shared fragile planet.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.