PRESIDENT MICHAEL D HIGGINS spoke today to volunteers and campaigners who work to improve the lives of women in Ireland.
In his speech, he touched on several of the recent horror
stories involving the exploitation and mistreatment of women here – and
the lessons we must learn as a country.
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
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
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.
Questions that cannot be ignored
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
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
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.
Children whose lives are scarred by violence
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
Dear friends, 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
I in 7 women here have experienced severe abuse from a partner
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
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.
Victimising another generation
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.
Men are becoming vocal about their intolerance of aggression
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.
Yazidi women being used as sex slaves
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.
The crucial mission
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
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.