Speech at a HeForShe Garden Party
Thursday, 23rd June, 2022
Sabina and I offer you the warmest of welcomes to Áras an Uachtaráin. The celebration of community in all its diversity and sense of connection is a central element of the garden party season in the Áras. During our garden party season we welcome many groups and organisations who contribute in myriad ways to our shared community life.
We organise the garden parties on different themes. Today’s theme of gender equality, dignity, respect and putting an end to violence, recognises those who have been working and are considering together what contribution we can all make to the strengthening of gender equality and all of these across the Island of Ireland.
We are welcoming this afternoon representatives of groups, companies, and organisations, that represent the worlds of sport and the arts, of law and agriculture, of advocacy and education and of course of youth and youth empowerment.
You have been invited here today in recognition, not only of the significant and generous impact you already have on our society and on the lives and welfare of our citizens, but of the profound contribution we can make, together, to the crafting of a society in which men and women work together to ensure that it will become taken for granted that all women are welcome and included in all aspects of society with their skills and talents recognised, their safety and welfare guaranteed. Needless to say, it is long past the time for an end to violence against women, but we have not succeeded.
Your attendance is a powerful expression too of the great will and capacity that I believe exists to address these most important issues of gender equality, dignity and respect. I am deeply grateful to you all for being here today, and for the commitments you will make and achieve.
I have a personal connection to such campaigning and the changes for which it is calling . In 2015 I was greatly proud have been asked by the UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women to inscribe my name on the list of those committed to being a HeForShe champion.
In taking up my role as a HeforShe champion I, along with a number of other Heads of State and Heads of Government, committed to using the influence of our offices to convey a simple but vital message: that men must stand in solidarity with women if women's rights are to be fully achieved.
HeforShe invites people around the world to stand together as equal partners to craft a shared vision of a gender equal world, and to specifically undertake the challenge of engaging men and boys to promote gender equality, and to combat gender based violence.
Throughout our many years in public life Sabina and I have participated in many campaigns and lobby groups aimed at achieving equal rights for all our citizens. We always stressed that when a woman’s contribution is ignored, devalued or obstructed, all of society is the loser. In that time the critical role of men in the achievement of such rights became abundantly clear.
There can be no doubt that the crafting of society with the stamp of an ever-deepening recognition of equality is a duty that must be shared by all, and that any sustaining silence as to the acceptance of a flawed society, with its inequalities and violence, perpetuates a society that fails us all.
We have, in Ireland, made progress in recent years towards becoming a more inclusive society; one that recognises the voices of many of those who once felt forced to remain silent, confined to the margins, discriminated against and, in too many cases, made vulnerable by intolerance, prejudice and ignorance.
As we celebrate our theme of gender equality, I reiterate my call this afternoon for a re-examining, in a spirit of some urgency, the situation that prevails for women in our society. In recent times we have been shocked and saddened by accounts of tragic events of violence, leading to the deaths of young women; young women with so much potential and possibility for their lives and with so much to offer our society.
They are women too who have been grievously let down by a society that continues, in some sections of society, to tolerate behaviour that allows women become the victims of inequity, belittlement, abuse and aggression. The rise, during the Covid epidemic, in domestic violence sounds a very loud warning as to where we are on these issues.
The figures, indeed, remain stark and shocking: According to Women’s Aid’s latest annual report they received a total of 33,821 disclosures of domestic violence during 2021 – 19,902 relating to emotional abuse, 4,707 to physical abuse, 1,104 to economic abuse, and 2,383 to sexual abuse. These are worrying facts, which require an urgent response.
Worrying in a special way is the fact that 5,735 of those disclosures relate to child abuse in the context of domestic violence. That is a perturbing reminder of the many vulnerable children whose lives are also damaged and put at risk by men who turn what should be supportive and loving relationships into ones defined by bullying, intimidation and control. It is so important that these children, too, receive vital support and protection in order that they might live lives free from fear and endangerment.
The ethical and inclusive society, to which we all aspire and give public expression, can only grow from communities, institutions and workplaces that are themselves ethical and inclusive in nature. In the manifesto for my campaigns to become President of Ireland, I stressed the urgency of the transformation we needed in institutions, and all places of employment, and in the wider society. In far too many, not only does gender equality remain a serious barrier to female progression, but in workplaces women are more likely to be in lower paid employment than men, to be under-represented at management and board level. There are still too many sports clubs where women are made to feel like second-class citizens. That women feel increasingly unsafe when walking alone should be a concern for us all, men and women. A society that views women as lesser citizens;
their voices not valued, their rights not respected is not only dysfunctional in a cohesive sense, it is objectionable on every dimension of rights and its failure to recognise the essential dignity of the person.
A review, across all aspects and parts of Irish society, of how we treat and view our female citizens, is now long overdue. We must recognise and reject the many often small, barely visible ways in which we collectively create a society that at best ignores, and at worst facilitates and allows the casual discrimination that women are forced to tolerate in their daily lives.
We must acknowledge that it is not enough that we refrain or do not personally take part in such unacceptable actions. Rather we must raise our voices and unite in demanding the removal of the many barriers, obstacles and intimidatory actions that prevent women from feeling respected and safe in our schools and universities, in our national institutions and organisations, on our sports fields and on our streets and, worst of all, in their own homes.
We must recognise too how destructive, in any social or psychological sense, are versions of hierarchy and aggression that are combining with gender exclusion, in a way that goes far beyond status assertion.
It is crucial that we ensure our children learn, in both their home and school environments, of the importance of respecting equally the voices of all their fellow citizens and, of course, this has to include rejecting of any notion of discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality, social background or gender.
We must, in all areas and sections of Irish society, begin to consider and discuss the ways in which we are often at best ignoring, and at worst facilitating and enabling, the discrimination and abuse that so many women suffer and tolerate in their daily lives.
May I repeat that we must recognise that a culture that accepts, and fails to speak out against, the daily forms of mistreatment and belittlement of women is a culture that silently enables its being taken for granted, its escalation, with often-serious consequences such as emotional and physical cruelty, exploitation and even death.
That women’s rights are now conceptualised as a universal human rights issue signifies a defining change in how the international community has come to address issues of equality. That is recognised, not just in the HeforShe campaign, but in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in 2015.
Sustainable Development Goal no.5 calls on all the nations of the world to, I quote:
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and Girls.”
Within this Goal no.5, there is a specific target aimed at gender violence, and it is phrased as follows:
“eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.”
The 17 SDGs, and the related 169 targets associated to them, were adopted by the largest gathering of world governments in history at that time. They are now universal objectives for all nations, and together we have a duty to ensure they are brought to achievement.
There cannot every be any shield of cultural exception be placed before such rights.
In being united in commitment and positive action we can, together, construct the foundations for a better, stronger and more just society; and a nation that truly deserves to be called a democracy. That is a dream that I know is shared by all here today and I thank you for your work, now and into the future, in bringing that dream to fruition.
May I conclude by thanking all those who have worked so hard on behalf of the Áras to make this a wonderful occasion for you.
May I thank our MC, my dear friend Niall Stokes and thank our guest speakers, Ms Noeline Blackwell who moderated our similarly themed International Women’s Day seminar in March; and to Mr. Richie Sadlier whose work with young people, and young men and boys in particular, on the topics of sex and sexuality, consent, porn and sexual health has made such a valuable contribution.
May I thank our entertainers that have been playing around the grounds and in the house – pianist, David O’Connor, Dublin Ukelele Collective, Colm Ó hArgáin’s Trad Group, and later Swing Cats.
As you know when embarking on a campaign for change and to unite people there is something that is even more powerful than slogans and banners … and that is music, so I am grateful for our entertainers here in the marquee also - Tom Barry, Tolu Makay, and Moxie.
Sabina and I are greatly looking forward to seeing more performances in a few minutes.
On your behalf and my own, a very special thank-you to the OPW staff here in Áras an Uachtaráin – for their hard work, their unfailing good humour –not least – culinary skills, all things which contribute in no small part to making this garden party a very special event for you.
The staff of the Secretariat for all of the organisation and planning that these events present. Philip Sweeney and Arcana – for sound and technical support. Our thanks too for the assistance of the Civil Defence, our friends from St. John of Gods, the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochana, and the Gaisce volunteers.
Sabina and I hope you have a great afternoon. Enjoy the rest of your time here and thank you for coming.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.