Speech at a Reception to Celebrate International Women’s Day 2017
Áras an Uachtaráin, 8 March 2017
A Chairde Gael,
Tá fíorchaoin fáilte romhaibh ar fad chuig Áras an Uachtaráin. Tá áthas orm féin agus ar Saidhbhín go bhfuil sibh inár gcomhluadar. Caithfidh mé a rá, chomh maith, go dtugann sé an-sásamh dúinn Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan a chéiliúradh inniú, libhse, atá chomh sáite sin in eagraisí éagsúla chun cúnamh praiticiúil agus tacaíocht thábhachtach a thabhairt do mhná atá i ngéarghá leis.
[You are all very welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin. Sabina and I are very pleased to be celebrating International Women’s Day with all of you, activists, tireless campaigners, volunteers and staff of organisations that play such a vital role in empowering the women of this country to live dignified and meaningful lives – lives free from terror and abuse; lives enabled to develop and flourish to their fullest potential.]
As we meet for International Women’s Day 2017 there are dark shadows that hang over our meeting, shadows that require us all to summon up yet again a light that might dispel the darkness to which so many women and their children were condemned, and the questions left unanswered as we moved on.
All of society loses when gender inequality is not only allowed to occur but is allowed to reproduce itself. This happens when a silence prevails where it should have been broken.
The recent horrifying revelations of a mass grave of babies in Tuam, discovered as a result of the relentless work of local historian, Catherine Corless, is another necessary step in blowing open the locked doors of a hidden Ireland and we are challenged to consider how the reprehensible attitudes that were held towards so called “unmarried women” and so-called “illegitimate babies” came to be held.
May I commend the work of Catherine Corless and others who have continued to ask the questions that are important if we are to face the truth of what prevailed and ensure the rightful question put by women who had direct experience of institutions, and the society they reflected, and their relatives too have questions that cannot be ignored.
So many questions remain and I hope the commission of inquiry will serve to put the truth on the record in a way that respects the memory of these children, their families, and their mothers in particular, I also want to welcome the Government’s decision to set-up a commission of investigation to examine the alleged abuse of an intellectually disabled young woman, known as “Grace”, at a foster home in the South East.
I do want to express my sympathy to all of those affected by the tragedy in Clondalkin. The women involved would have been represented here today. All of our hearts must go out to these women and children.
Throughout our public lives Sabina and I have always been acutely aware that the struggle for equality would remain fundamentally frustrated as long as there continued to be in Ireland thousands of women who live in fear of violence in the closed space of their homes, whose bodily, emotional and spiritual integrity is shattered by the brutality of a close relative or a partner.
Domestic violence is an outright negation of the dignity and the rights of women. Our collective journey towards the full enjoyment of women’s rights will never be complete if those abuses of the gravest sort are tolerated, if silence is allowed to prevail around them. This is why I am so delighted to have this opportunity to pay tribute, on this special day in the international calendar, to so many organisations and groups across Ireland who are committed to speaking up against domestic violence and to supporting women in breaking free from the cycle of anguish.
We must acknowledge that men can also be victims of similar crimes, perpetrated by women or by other men, and their suffering and need for support is no less. However, it is clear that the perpetrators are predominantly men and the victims predominantly women. It is fitting, therefore, to acknowledge this issue on International Women’s Day and it is appropriate to celebrate your efforts and the contribution that you make to the lives of so many.
All of the organisations you represent are indeed a vital source of support for those women and their children whose lives are scarred by violence, so often suffered at the hands of somebody to whom they are intimately related. The daily work conducted by your staff and volunteers, the practical and emotional support you provide to women in distress, are vital. Every phone call picked up on your helpline, every face-to-face conversation with a distraught woman, every day spent in the safe haven of a refuge, contributes to breaking the spiral of abuse, to cracking the cage of isolation and hopelessness in which the victims of domestic violence so often live.
May I, then, thank each and every one of you who are here this afternoon for your profoundly humane dedication to supporting women in their efforts to reconstruct happy, decent lives for themselves and their children – lives that are lived free from fear. Your work is of huge social worth; it is work that contributes to uprooting forms of abuse that stand in the way of the Ireland we so dearly wish to achieve, not just for this, but for future generations – for the women, and also for the men of today and for their daughters and sons and for their grandchildren.
The steady increase in the number of women helped by your various organisations provides for a double-sided lesson. On the one hand, it indicates that violence inside the home is progressively getting the levels of public recognition it deserves, that women are more willing to come forward and seek support. Yet on the other hand, the number of incidents recorded each year in Ireland, counted by the thousands, also attests to the alarming persistence of domestic violence in our country.
In a 2014 study entitled “Violence against women: an EU-wide survey”, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) reported that 14% of women in Ireland have experienced physical violence by a partner since the age of 15, and that more than a third of them have experienced psychological violence. Sexual violence by a partner or former partner, as well as stalking, including cyber stalking, are further matters for concern. An earlier research conducted by the National Crime Council and the ESRI had arrived at similar conclusions, finding that 1 in 7 women in our country have, at some time in their lives, experienced severe abuse of a physical, sexual or emotional nature at the hands of a partner or husband.
This is not, of course, a uniquely Irish phenomenon: the EU Campaign Against Domestic Violence has shown that 25% of all violent crimes reported in the EU involve a man assaulting his wife or partner. Such figures are all the more alarming as domestic violence is an especially pernicious form of violence, and one that has a higher rate of reoccurrence than any other type of crime. Moreover, as you know very well, the poison of domestic violence is one that extends beyond the aggressor and his direct victim; it seeps into every aspect of family life, into the hearts and minds of children who witness it, who grow up in the shadow of fear, and often develop a skewed perspective on human relations. Unfortunately, physical, emotional and even sexual aggression is often a learned behaviour that can contaminate the relationships of those who witnessed such abuse in their own childhoods and victimise another generation of women and children.
Our responsibility – as a society, and individually, as concerned citizens – is to use all the means at our disposal, not just to curb, but to end this cycle of destructive violence. In that regard, the advocacy activities and awareness-raising campaigns carried out by some of your organisations are very important. They play a central role in galvanising transformative change, not just through their contribution to the reinforcement of our legislative and criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence, but also through a range of initiatives aimed at fostering a change of consciousness among the wider Irish population, including – and most crucially – among our male population.
Indeed, the cause of women's rights and equality is a political project in which men should have as great an interest and as onerous a duty as women. An important step in uprooting the misplaced feelings of superiority that so often underpin male violence towards women is, I believe, the nurturing of an atmosphere that will enable men to feel comfortable and empowered to identify themselves as champions of women’s rights. Men must be engaged, and many are becoming so, to be vocal about their intolerance of such physical, psychological and sexual aggression against women.
This is a step I consciously took when I accepted, in February 2015, the invitation of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, Executive Director of the “UN Women” agency, to take part in the HeforShe campaign. In taking up this role along with several other Heads of State and Government, I committed to using the influence of my office to convey a simple but essential message: that men must stand up and show leadership if women's rights are to be fully achieved.
In March of last year, I had the pleasure of organising a special event here in the Áras, in partnership with Safe Ireland’s “MAN UP” campaign – a campaign which engaged men and boys to stand up and play their part in ending gender-based violence and, more broadly, to fostering positive change within their communities. It is also encouraging to see the success of similar initiatives, such as the White Ribbon Campaign, which has been such a successful global male-led movement to end men’s violence against women. This has been notably supported by Tom Meagher, the husband of Jill Meagher who was so shockingly murdered in Melbourne in 2012.
Such a deep-seated change of consciousness is all the more necessary as we are witnessing, across the world, an upsurge of intolerable forms of violence against women and girls, including trafficking and sexual exploitation. We know, for example, that one of the most alarming dimensions in the plight of those hundreds of thousands of refugees who currently find themselves trapped at the gates of Europe is the extreme vulnerability of women – and children – to exploitation and violence.
I have stated before, but it is worth repeating that today, gender-based violence is a universal outrage rooted in many factors including poverty, conflict, and the vulnerable position of women in accessing credit and land ownership. While some achievements have been made, violence and coercion are increasing at global levels, in particular in zones of conflict, displacement and transit. The eradication of gender-based violence remains a great ethical and global challenge of our age.
At this moment, rape continues to be persistently used as a weapon of war; and I recently received the visit of a young Yazidi woman, Nadia Murad Basee Taha, who described the harrowing sufferings of so many women and girls from that small and ancient people who are being used as sex slaves by those who derive from their distorted reading of the sacred texts a licence to treat women as inferior beings.
As all of you here know very well, however, the discourses and attitudes suggesting female inferiority and fuelling prejudice towards women are far from being the preserve of any singular culture or religion. Indeed, today we are witnessing a worrying surge of unapologetic sexism and the undermining of women’s rights in one of the world’s most advanced democracies. This reminds us that no society is ever immune to such harmful regressions of rights painstakingly won. We must never let down our guard, and confront, not just violence, but prejudice and disrespect wherever it arises. It is important in such a context that our own Government has in 2015 signed the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, and it will hopefully move towards full ratification soon.
In striving to eliminate gender-based violence we are very fortunate indeed to be able to rely on the dedication, professionalism, and utter determinations of so many groups who defend the rights of women across Ireland. May I say once again, then, how pleased I am to be able to convey to you my deepest appreciation and most heartily felt thanks for the crucial mission you so diligently carry out, day after day.
Thanks to your solidarity, understanding and support, women who are vulnerable to domestic and other forms of violence find it easier to articulate their ordeal, to reflect on it, and to eventually emancipate themselves from its destructive influence on their lives. You encourage them to face, but also transform, their suffering, thereby paving the way for a future where hope and meaning can be restored.
Is lá é seo chun céiliúradh a dhéanamh. Céiliúradh de bhur n-iarrachtaí, bhur ndíograis agus bhur gcur chuige chun cothrom na féinne a bhaint amach do mhná atá i mbaol agus do ghach bean eile maraon. Céiliúradh chomh maith den fís atá againn sochaí a bhaint amach ina bhfuil gach éinne in ann marachtáil le dínit, gan bhagairt agus le fíor-mheas againn uile ar a chéile.
[Today is a day of celebration, celebration of what is possible, and celebration of a new relationship between men and women, forged by those, like yourselves, who are contributing your transformative energy, your sense of justice and your power of care to our society.]
When I look around this room, it is heartening to see so many people committed to combating distress and despair. I wish you every success with your important work, and continued courage in your future endeavours.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.