Remarks By President Michael D Higgins, International Women’s Day, 8th March 2013

It gives Sabina and me great pleasure to welcome you all here today for a celebration of International Women’s Day. Thank you for all joining us at this truly remarkable gathering of women leaders from across Ireland.

International Women’s Day gives us all an opportunity to discuss women’s issues and to review and reflect on the progress that has been made in achieving equality for women, and in the promotion and protection of women’s rights. It is also a day that gives us a chance to think about the challenges that remain, that still have to be overcome, and the gaps that still need to be filled if we are to achieve balance.

[International Women’s Day is day which gives us all an opportunity to explicitly take stock and reflect on the advances made in achieving equality for women and in the promotion and protection of women’s human rights. It is also a day to consider the challenges which remain and are yet to conquer, and the gaps we have yet to close if we are to achieve equality. ]

This year we will be commemorating the 1913 Lock Out and over the coming years we will celebrate a number of other important centenaries – which allow us to consider the extraordinary women at the heart of our struggle for independence and at the heart of our effort, still unfinished, to create a republic in the truest sense, in which all persons enjoy equality and lives of dignity.

My friend, the historian Margaret MacCurtain has written, for example, about one of the great women who gave leadership, leadership of Rosie Hackett, an early feminist, who joined the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1909. She went on to participate in the Lockout four years later which saw more than 20,000 workers on strike. Having trained as a printer in the following years, Hackett printed out and carried a still damp 1916 Proclamation to James Connolly with the ink still damp.

2013 also marks the centenary of the death of Alice Brady – aged 16 who was shot dead by one of those who were drafted in to defeat the locked out workers by taking their job at the behest of the employers such as William Martin Murphy.

While the right to vote was granted to some women early in the history of our state, this right was initially limited based as it was property rights and maturity. It is due to the tenacity of powerful female activists such as Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington that universal suffrage was achieved in 1922. In mentioning the name of Sheehy Skeffington let us recall also the politics of Frances Sheehy-Skeffington who placed the project of feminism and peace above the projects of any nationalism that was not emancipator, and any socialism that was simply narrowly materialist, or violent.
As Margaret MacCurtain has written, the impact of the ‘second wave’ feminist movement of the 1970s which was rights based and sought greater opportunities for women across the many domains of their lives, has yet to be fully analysed. But some of you here tonight led the movement through that period and there is no doubt Ireland owes you a debt of great gratitude for your vision, your wisdom and your generosity to your country and fellow citizens.

One such leader who is no longer with us, and who must be recalled today, is Inez McCormack. Inez was a passionate and committed human rights activist who fought relentlessly for the creation of a fairer society for workers, for minorities and for women. In her pursuit of a better and more equal world she was never afraid to push against the boundaries of injustice and intolerance.

As the first woman full-time official of the National Union of Public Employees, the first woman elected to the Northern Ireland Committee of Congress and the first female President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Inez did immense work on behalf of the workers of this island and has left us all a valuable legacy. More widely, she played a significant role in promoting the inclusion of strong human rights and equality provisions in the Good Friday Agreement and in campaigning for their implementation.

The people who live together on this island are better off for what she has done for inclusive citizenship. We will all miss her, all of us who had the privilege of knowing her.

[Her contribution to inclusive citizenship has made this island a better place for the people who share it. She will be greatly missed by all those privileged to know her.]

Today there are no reasons of course, to be complacent. The equality gap between men and women in Ireland remains significant. When we consider women’s rights across a wide range of areas, including economic, political, social and cultural it is clear that there are still very tangible barriers to women’s access, success and equality in many fields.

This audience in particular does not require me to enumerate the inequalities that exist, but I choose to refer to it today so as to ensure that such inequalities never become accepted by society as inevitable. We must remember that remaining silent on inequality is one certain way to foster it.

As to poverty, research from the Economic and Social Research Institute tells us that households headed by a female, and households where there is a high likelihood that the head of household is a woman (such as lone parent households), experience some of the worst levels of poverty and deprivation in the State. In 2009 17.7% of female headed households experienced deprivation; this rose to 26.7% in 2012, the highest increase across all households.

Women disproportionately carry the burden of poverty here in Ireland and sadly this is also a global reality. The international advocacy group, Global Poverty Project tells us that:
“We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low paid employment… Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. On average, women earn half of what men earn.”

And of course poverty is not just about income. According to UN Women which is headed by Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile who visited me recently here at Áras an Uachtaráin:

“Millions of women face ‘time poverty’ due to the double work burden of providing for families in addition to shouldering a large share of unpaid and time-intensive domestic labour. This limits women’s time for leisure activities and impacts on their well-being, as well as curtailing their opportunities for education and paid employment.”

While the Millennium Development Goals, now coming to end term, offered a development framework for achieving gender equality, and for empowering women to claim their rights and access justice, we must ensure that ending gender-based injustices that create barriers to women’s and girls’ developmental goals and opportunities must be the centrepiece of future further action on the Millennium and on the post 2015 framework for poverty eradication.

Gender based violence represents a grave and increasing violation of the fundamental human rights of girls and women globally. As to the source of such violence, the words of the UN General Assembly in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, are as true today as they were when written in 1993. The UN recognised then that:
“violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women . . . and that violence against women is one of the crucial mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position.”

All types of gender based violence are pernicious and unacceptable. They damage the very foundations of human society: it is reported that worldwide, there are 32 million ‘missing women’ due to the practice of female infanticide. Furthermore, 100 to 140 million girls and women around the world have undergone genital mutilation, including 6.5 million in Western countries leading to lifelong pain, infection and premature death.
Violence against women, including rape, has increased in the conflict zones of the world. It is an issue that requires an urgent response at the level of the UN and its agencies.

Here in Ireland a 2005 study by the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence found that 15 per cent of women have experienced severely abusive behaviour from a partner. Of those severely abused, less than one quarter reported the matter to An Garda Síochána and one third had never told anyone. Further, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has pointed out that “Ireland has one of the highest instances of victims of sexual crimes falling out of the criminal justice system after reporting the crime to the Gardai.”

The fear of recrimination that contributes to this silence and complaint withdrawal is a shameful indictment on our society. We must ensure that those experiencing sexual or domestic violence have the appropriate supports accessible to them and that we combat any negative attitudes towards victims within society and within services or structures of the state. I congratulate all those who work so assiduously, many in this room tonight, to break the silence on gender based violence. In particular I salute the victims who by breaking the silence on their own dreadful experience have shone a light for others.

The low level of representation of women in our political world remains a serious and particular concern. We must do much more to reform our political system so as to ensure that the boundless talent, intelligence and skills that women bring to the workplace generally can be more profoundly present in our parliament. I am pleased to have so many of Ireland’s finest public representatives with us tonight. It is my hope that at an institutional level too we may come to experience such a change in ethos as moves on from simple concessions of participation in a male patriarchal and authoritarian setting to a more complete and fully human set of arrangements in decision making.

Today is a day to acknowledge and celebrate all those who have fought for women’s equality, and worked to combat those power differentials which have been so prevalent within our culture, religions, economy and society at large that allow and perpetuate women’s oppression. We must, I suggest, also always remember and recall all those pioneers who had to struggle to place those equality issues on the agenda, often battling virulent, hostile and personally wounding, opposition. It is to value and celebrate the courage of such citizens that compels us to come together today.

Over the years, and more recently, since my inauguration in 2011, I have had the immense pleasure of meeting some of the world’s most inspirational women leaders: women such as Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, a country which, while still struggling with great inequalities, has managed to lift almost 40 million people out of poverty while also growing its economy to one of the world’s largest. In June last year, Sabina and I welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi to the Áras, a woman who epitomises for so many of us the essence of dignity, active citizenship, and the struggle for participative democracy.

Last November I had the honour of hosting a lunch for Mrs. Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. Mrs Sekaggya is a magistrate from Uganda and was the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission from 1996 to 2008. Most recently I had the honour of receiving Michelle Bachelet here in the Áras. As I mentioned Ms Bachelet is a former President of Chile and is currently first Under Secretary General at the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women. I think it is fair to say that whatever about the other surprises of the role of President, engaging with so many wonderful, activist women is a very fulfilling benefit.

Many of those women I admire so much for their commitment to equality and social justice are here in this room. We have so much to be proud of: women leaders over many generations in the fields of justice, science, education, literature, the arts; women leading the fight for human rights, for a more equal, ethical, and diverse Ireland. But even more important to celebrate the courage of women working for global human rights, such as those recognised and assisted by FrontLine, Trócaire, and other humanitarian agencies, those women in Júarez, Mexico – and many others, all fighting for equality, justice and solidarity, on a global scale.

Some of you here invited me, and Sabina, over the past year, to celebrate or mark a particular occasion for the organisation you lead. I am always pleased to do whatever small bit I can do to affirm the work of such organisations which are central to transformation and renewal of our country. Some of you here today assisted Sabina and I in our hospitality here in the house, as performers, Masters of Ceremony, poets; and we are pleased tonight, to reciprocate, and have you all as guests in our home to celebrate your contribution.

International Women’s Day is a day to mark solidarity among women, and those who support equality for women, but it should not be used to deny or ignore the diversity that exists among women. While all of you here share the common experience of being a woman in a society dominated by men and oriented to serve best the needs of men, there are those here whose lives have been and are infinitely more difficult than others due to particular barriers that society constructs to exclude those with less financial resources, those of colour, those from ethnic minorities. Ridding our society of these barriers is vital if we are to achieve the inclusive society we seek in which the creativity and capabilities of each and every citizen have the opportunity to flourish.

These differences do exist, but there are common experiences too: all women leaders will be familiar with the long hours, the endless days, the missed meals, the lonely decisions, the numerous roles and the multiple – tasking. One also hopes that you share a common experience of the goal reached, however small; of the pleasure of solidarity among equals, of success against the odds. All of you through your painstaking and courageous work contribute to making Ireland more equal, more ethical, a more moral place in which to live, to raise our children, to grow older.

Finally I would like to thank our guest, Eleanor McEvoy, for the entertainment she provided for us tonight. I would also like to thank each and every one of them for coming in our company here in the Áras on this important day, and for their contribution on behalf of Ireland. May God not weaken you.

[In closing I’d like to thank our guest, Eleanor McEvoy, for providing the entertainment tonight. I also want to thank each one of you for joining us here in the Áras on this valuable day, and thank you for your contribution to Ireland. May it continue.]

Let us look forward to celebrating International Women’s Day with further advances to report for women in our world, advances that are advances for all humanity. Thank you all for coming to Áras an Uachtaráin for this year’s celebration.

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