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‘Past time for ending violence against women –  It must stop now!’ Speech for International Women’s Day

Áras an Uachtaráin, 23rd March, 2022

May I thank you all for coming here today and facilitating our rescheduled event after the unfortunate but unavoidable postponement of the event that was due to have taken place on International Women’s Day itself.  Sabina and I had unfortunately no choice but to postpone due to our own positive COVID-19 tests, and we are grateful to have the opportunity of hosting this event where we can explore issues together.

It is good to be welcoming our guests, our citizens, to the Áras again - on Sunday, Sabina and I hosted a special Remembrance Ceremony here at Áras an Uachtaráin, entitled “To Honour and Hold in Memory”, for all those who died from COVID-19, those grieving the loss of their loved ones and frontline workers. 

We planted an oak tree in the Commemorative Garden as a lasting memorial to all those lost during the pandemic and you are all most welcome to visit later this morning if you wish.  

We also rang the peace bell -
For those who died during COVID
For those who made sacrifices during COVID
For those who lost loved ones during COVID
For frontline workers
For those who still have COVID. 

International Women’s Day is one of the most important days in the year for Sabina and I, as President of Ireland. It is a special day when it is appropriate for all of us to celebrate the achievements of all the many great women who have made, and are making, such a lasting mark on all our lives.  Even more importantly, it is also a day to challenge the many great violences, exclusions and deprivations of dignity and rights which continue to be inflicted on women across our society and across the world, and in particular the many horrific acts of violence which continue to be inflicted on women, and indeed which are on the increase.

I know that our thoughts today will be in particular with those brave women fleeing with their children from horrific violence in Ukraine. We stand with the women of Ukraine, and once again call for a meaningful ceasefire and accessible humanitarian corridors, we call on Russia to withdraw troops, and we ask the international community to see the urgent necessity of restoring peace.

At home in Ireland, it is undeniable we have as a nation been through a most difficult two years as we battled, and indeed continue to meet the challenge of the Coronavirus Pandemic. For all of us, it was a time that called upon us to make sacrifices in the way we lived our lives, and to demonstrate a spirit of resilience and solidarity as we navigated our way through unprecedented times. 

We must, however, recognise that some, particularly those with little resources, and among so many of them women, suffered more than others.

Among those who suffered were an increased number on whom domestic violence was inflicted.  Women’s Aid have reported an increase of 43% in those seeking their assistance during 2020 compared to 2019. We also know that the number of protection and interim barring orders granted to victims of domestic violence increased enormously during that time. 

We owe an enormous debt to those organisations who have exposed, and are exposing, this violence and who are working to help the victims of this violence, victims whose courage in speaking out is such a huge encouragement to those seeking to muster courage.

In recent times we have also been shocked by more recent tragic events of violence, leading to the deaths of young women. Young women with so much potential and possibility to offer our society, have had their lives taken, leaving heartbroken those who loved and cared for them. The families who mourn them are not alone in asking what kind of society is it that continues to hold in it and tolerate behaviour that allows women become the victims of discrimination, belittlement, abuse and aggression.

There can be no doubt that we must now re-examine, and in a spirit of some urgency, all of those factors that allow this to continue, and so much of which is based on the disrespect and exclusions too that prevail for women in our society, and that have not been questioned, have been allowed to be reproduced. 

Yes there has been progress, and it is important that we recognise the many positive changes that have been brought about, often due to the work of hard working and courageous women across our society over the generations, indeed there were events that took place all across the country for International Women’s Day where many of these achievements were celebrated, but there is so much more which we must do.

We are past time for giving urgent consideration to the actions we might take in order to ensure that violence against women, in all its forms, is removed from our society along with all behaviour that contributes to the continuation of a society which is not fully inclusive. 

We have not been valuing the voices and respecting even the most basic rights of all our citizens.  For example, I recently visited some women of the Travelling community, whose housing rights have been denied for decades. Why should it be that Travellers should have to get to the Supreme Court to establish their basic rights?

We are a country that strives to be a Republic, with a commitment in our Constitution to cherishing all our people equally. That is a commitment we have sadly failed to fulfil.  Ours is a country where women cannot walk alone in many places without fear of being attacked or subjected to unwanted attention or comments, where one in five employees have been sexually harassed at work – the majority of them women, where so many simple daily actions and situations place women in an environment where they feel unsafe or vulnerable.

In recent times more and more courageous women have come forward to tell their stories of abuse, harassment, discrimination and humiliation, including in institutions of the State from which we were entitled to expect the setting of an example, rather than reports of abuse.

All too regularly we read reports of women being abused physically and psychologically, controlled, humiliated, stalked, attacked, and terrorised. We hear of the organisations that fail to deal with abuse, hierarchy who turn a blind eye to the exploitation and ill treatment that continues to be experienced by so many of their female members.

We witness the casual misogyny, the vulgar comments, the online abuse meted out daily to women and considered by too many men and for too long to be acceptable, harmless and even humorous.

We listen to their stories and it is reported in different forms of the media that we are shocked, we are appalled, we are angered, but are we? Listening, however, is not enough, we need to talk and we need to act. Calling for a national conversation on how we, as a society, might create a fairer and safer environment for our female citizens is by now becoming repetitive. It cannot wait. Why has it to be so? Perhaps the answer is that a frozen bureaucratic structure is unable to unfreeze itself from old failed and damaging assumptions, is not capable of taking the radical steps to deliver on what after all are matters of rights.

We cannot begin the change too early. Even in the crèches, the areas of play, all spaces of interaction, from the earliest years – in all of them we must initiate projects of behavioural change.

Across all spectrums and fields of Irish society we must begin to consider and discuss the actions that are necessary to prevent any continuing to ignore, or at worst facilitating and enabling, the discrimination and abuse that so many women suffer and tolerate in their daily lives. 

At a global level we must oppose any attempt at invoking cultural exception, bogus arguments.  We must recognise that a culture that accepts and fails to speak out against the daily forms of abuse and belittlement of women is a culture that silently enables its endurance and escalation, with often serious consequences such as ill treatment, exploitation and even death.

Countries that are safe for the women and girls who inhabit them can only grow from societies and communities that recognise the basic dignity that is the source of rights, in order to ever achieve such places of safety, security and recognition of dignity, and they are too rare, we must teach our young males to be knowingly respectful of women in the way they treat and speak about their fellow citizens.

Surely it must be basic to ensure our workplaces are spaces where women are free from inappropriate comments and gestures, and where their salaries and opportunities for development and promotion, are ones in which female employees are fully valued and respected members. 

It is important that women are strongly represented at all levels and particularly in leadership positions and key decision making roles in the public sector, private sector and boardrooms.  The traditional and stereotypical career expectations must be broken down, assumptions which continue to see areas of employment such as clerical and office work and caring duties to be dominated by women.  There remains significant gender segregation in the uptake of subjects in the STEM fields of science, technology engineering and mathematics; the building of obstacles that deter so many women from remaining in professions for which they are fully qualified, and in which they have so much to offer has not been eliminated.

How sad it is that it took the Covid Pandemic to highlight the significance to the lesser status accorded to work of care, compassion, kindness – work that is carried by women, and by men too, to a lesser degree.

Beyond the workplace, in every area of life we must examine the change we urgently need. In the area of recreation we must ensure that our sporting fields and arenas are even playing pitches in every way, women’s achievements receiving the equal promotion and media recognition that is not only deserved, but is essential to the achievement of equal recognition for all of our sportswomen. 

In addition, we must make certain that those we present to our young people as role models must be fully deserving of those titles, in their behaviour both on and off the field.

That women are appropriately and accurately represented in the most important and enriching world of arts and culture is so important. Gender bias in the Irish Arts must be very firmly made a thing of the past.

Today, Sabina and I, as a HeForShe advocate, at the request of the United Nations Secretary General, wanted to bring you all together from across society to consider actions, and hear concrete commitments, which we can take as individuals or as organisations to realise the achievement of a truly equal world, one in which the relationships between the genders is one of solidarity, equality, and respect and defined by a spirit of shared humanity.

Míle buíochas daoibh uilig as bhur n-iarrachtaí go dtí seo agus gach rath oraibh don todhchaí.

I know in my heart that together we can begin the vital work of forging a new and better relationship between men and women and a culture and society that is fair, inclusive and respectful of all its citizens in all their diversities. Let us all take the occasion of this gathering to not only reflect together but to make a commitment on the actions we can take to make change a reality.

May I thank Noeline Blackwell for agreeing to MC today’s event and to thank her for all her work, and her continued work, on all these issues over the years.

May I conclude by thanking Comhaltas Ceolteórí Éireann for the beautiful music they have brought to this occasion.  

Ashling Murphy, who is such a recent victim of male violence was, of course, one of your members. You performed so movingly at her funeral and your presence here today is a poignant but welcome one as we recall the life and great loss of Ashling, and of all those women who have lost their lives through gender based violence.  We remember and mourn them, but more importantly we resolve to take whatever action is necessary to eliminate violence against women and to work ever harder to achieve and to strengthen gender equality in our society and in our world.