Mary Robinson


February 13, 2008

Mary Robinson

former President of Ireland (1990-1997) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002)

It intrigues me that women who have achieved high office are much more likely than their male counterparts to admit mistakes they have made or talk about problems they are encountering.” – Mary Robinson

iKNOW Politics: You were the first woman President of Ireland. What challenges have you faced as a woman in this leadership position? How did your background prepare you to meet these challenges? 

When I was nominated as one of three candidates for the presidency, I was very much an outsider because I didn’t come from a political background and the expectation was that the Deputy Prime Minister would win. I should say that the presidency in Ireland is very different from the United States or France, or many countries in the developing world. It’s a non-executive presidency, and it had been held by six men.

There were six presidents under our constitution before me who tended to be elderly and they were supported by the main political party, the biggest political party, so I was challenging all of that. I was nominated earlier than my male competitors and began to argue the case for a more active, more relevant presidency that would be in touch with what different parts of civil society were doing and would also represent Ireland abroad in a way that was more true to our history, that we would be close to the struggle of developing countries. The arguments appealed and I was elected.

The challenge then was to implement my vision of a more active, more relevant presidency. I think it was important that I had gone around to various groups in the inner cities, in rural areas, in villages, and even on the islands, and admired the community self-development that was taking place. Shortly after I was inaugurated as president, I received invitations from many civil society groups to come and open their centre, or to mark a ten year anniversary of an activity for children or the elderly, or to some other worthwhile community activity.

Marked on the invitations was advice from my secretariat advice which I remember so well that said, “This event is not of sufficient importance to warrant the presence of the president.” And after getting two or three those, I said, “Well, who’s the president? It is important. I won’t go to all of them, but it is important that I should go strategically to show that what these groups and individuals are doing is important, that this community self-development is changing the face of the modern Ireland.” And it so happened that a lot of those working in their communities were women.

iKNOW Politics: Can you tell our readers about a change you made during your term as President of which you are particularly proud, perhaps one that benefited women and continues to resonate beyond your official term?

Perhaps what I was most proud of was reaching out to women in Northern Ireland, of both Protestant and Catholic background, working class women, and inviting them to come down to Dublin. They would put on new dresses and jackets and it was quite exceptional for them, first of all to come to Dublin from Belfast, and secondly to come to the official residence. We had wonderful discussions and again I was valuing the work they were doing in reaching across from different housing estates, and being courageous about knowing that it was necessary to build peace step by step out of the divides that had opened up in Belfast, to stop the violence.

I also spoke about a lot about the need for Ireland itself to be more open and to value diversity, and ultimately I linked this with the Irish Diaspora worldwide. We were lucky enough that about seventy million people worldwide were proud of their Irish heritage, and this was a great way of opening up space to create the peace in Northern Ireland which ultimately came about. I also made a number of speeches on particular occasions valuing the contribution of women and making sure that this included those women who were supporting community activities.

I was trying to make the Irish women’s movement more inclusive, so that all women felt empowered by what we called the women’s movement, and not somehow made to feel lesser. I used to hear the phrase, “Oh I’m not important, I’m just a housewife,” and I would ask, “Well what do you do in your community?” They would say, well I run this and I manage that,” and what you would find is that behind this “I’m just a housewife” is a very active person working for the community.

iKNOW Politics: In addition to advocating for the adoption of gender-sensitive laws in Ireland, you have actively promoted human rights and gender equitable development around the world. How would you describe your experience as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights? How do you think being a woman contributed to your experience, your perspective and your success in this role?

I was very conscious when I was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that, just as it had been important to be a woman president who was very conscious of doing it with a focus on women’s leadership, that I try as UN High Commissioner to show a leadership that benefited from the fact that I was a woman. Many of the human rights violations around the world are violations against women, the terrible problems of gender-based violence, human trafficking, and discrimination.

By being very in touch with these issues, and by speaking out about them and encouraging other women, I think that was part of the role that I was able to play. I also encouraged Kofi Annan as Secretary General to appoint a woman to the mandate of Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, and the person appointed, who still holds that mandate, Hina Jilani, has been a terrific success. It helped again, as she is dealing with tough issues on the ground, that as a woman she was able to recognize that rape is a terrible crime in war time, and so on.

iKNOW Politics: Following your September 2007 visit to refugee camps in Chad, you led a group of international stateswomen in the drafting of an open letter condemning the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war in Darfur and demanding its end. You have also called for the participation of women in peace talks. What can women in politics do to build greater security for women caught up in conflict and to help eliminate violence against them?

I am very conscious that there are now enough women holding leadership positions at country level, in international organizations, in business, and in other aspects of local community, that we should see more evidence that this has made a difference, so I’ve been glad to encourage an enabling collective women’s leadership, particularly on issues of human security.

There was a major conference in New York in November, co-organized by a number of groups including the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum, which operates out of Realizing Rights, and also the Council of Women World Leaders which I chair, and we focused on different aspects of human security, the need for governments to carry through on the responsibility to protect in places like Darfur and Eastern Chad, and economic insecurity, the impact of climate change, and the gender dimensions of that impact on poor communities. We were very conscious of trying to find a new way of acting together, and that Chad visit was one example.

Another example is that we are working together to support Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, both in her planning for a major international symposium on women’s security in Liberia in March of 2009, but also in the meantime to build up the empowerment of women and girls in Liberia. I would hope that from now on one would see more visits, like the visit to Eastern Chad, and more practical working together in a collective way by women leaders to tackle problems.

iKNOW Politics: You are a member of the Leadership Council for the UN Global Coalition on Women and AIDS. In light of the increasing feminization of the AIDS epidemic, what are the prospects for women political leaders to shape national responses to ensure that the vulnerability of women and girls is addressed?

It has been important that there is this Leadership Council because the situation is so serious. At a conference in Nairobi last July on Women and AIDS, it was very significant that there were five hundred positive women there. I heard their stories of discrimination, of women being thrown out of their homes, and also the vulnerability of girls who are four, five, maybe six times more likely to become positive because of the existing power relationships, because their lack of being able to say no in certain circumstances.

I would like to see more collective women’s leadership on broad issues of women’s health. The statistic that is not improving is the one of women who die in childbirth, or shortly before or afterwards. The high rates of maternal mortality are shocking, and we need to make that more important, as it is vital to families and communities. We need much more emphasis on women’s health generally, on the need for reproductive health, the need to focus on the adolescent girl. The UN Global Coalition on Women and AIDS is just one of the broader collaborative initiatives that we need on women’s health, and that are coming about.

iKNOW Politics: Encouraging women's leadership is one of the issues addressed by Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative that you founded. How does the Initiative promote this objective?

In Realizing Rights we have been focusing on leadership, political leadership, business leadership, and very importantly women’s leadership. We have particularly focused on the need to connect women leaders interculturally, inter-regionally, and inter-generationally to give young women leaders a sense of being connected and opportunities to express their perspective and be heard. So we formed the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum with a number of other organizations, and it now operates out of Realizing Rights. We have meetings in different places.

For example, a recent meeting in Jordan co-hosted with Queen Rania brought women leaders from that region together. And we’ve also had meetings in Kenya, and we were a part of the summit I mentioned on women’s leadership. And we are very much linked to the project to support Liberia leading to the conference in 2009. We want to be practical. There is something that women leaders can do, and people in the iKNOW Politics network. When those of us who are already established are invited to a conference, it is very often the case that we are the only woman on the panel, or the only woman giving a keynote.

We should negotiate with the organizers, and say, “Look I know that you have only one woman, but I know several younger women, here are the names, and any one of them would be very good if they could come.” Or “I know that you don’t really have panels that would help to bring out the gender dimensions.” Whether on climate change, the world economy, or whatever, very often conferences do not bring out the gender dimensions in a balanced way. We need to be proactive in re-negotiating the terms of the conference itself, and I really think the iKNOW Politics network can do a lot on that.

iKNOW Politics: You are Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, a network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers. What role has this network played in creating a collective voice for women at the highest levels of government?

I think it is useful because we show the visibility of women who currently hold or have held office. It is one of the organizations that helped to promote the objective of a collective, enabling women’s leadership. The Council of Women World Leaders is involved as one of the organizers of a ministerial leadership initiative on health which will include bringing together women ministers of health as a component. We have also encouraged other networks of women ministers, such as women ministers of the environment who when they met at the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg affected the agenda. They noted that the draft agenda contained very little of a gender perspective and because they were ministers at the table, they were able to affect that. We also have a wider network of ministers of women’s affairs, we brought together women in trade and industry, and we are very much looking toward education.

There are very many women ministers of education and we want to try to work with them over the coming years. So it is about convening and also about making it known, to encourage other women that in fact a lot of women have held high office. I often surprise people when I am talking to an audience and say, “How many members do you think there are now on the Council of Women World Leaders?” We are up to forty now, which people do not appreciate. When I say forty, I include three invitations which I am hoping will be accepted.

iKNOW Politics: How do you think that being part of a network such as iKNOW Politics can help women in government?

I am very supportive of more connections and more solidarity in women exercising responsibility. Women tend to exercise leadership in a different way, in a problem solving way. By having this network we can exchange experiences and be supportive, and I think that that in itself is important. It can also help us to share information about mobilizing globally which is becoming more and more important. For example, I would ask that iKNOW Politics help us to communicate the Every Human Has Rights campaign which we in the recently formed Elders under Nelson Mandela have put together for the whole of 2008, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Each month will focus on a different theme, and the theme for March will be “Every Woman Has Rights.” What we are urging is that everyone go to the website, read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and sign the pledge that says that “I take personal responsibility for upholding the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in my daily life and in my community.” The reason behind this is that we feel that if individuals realize that these rights are their birthright, that it’s personal, then governments will pay more attention to respecting these human rights globally. It would be good if women could be very much a part of this.

It was a woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the inspiring leader in bringing lawyers together to draft the Universal Declaration and putting it forward, so we honor her and her vision by making it an opportunity to focus not just on human rights but on women’s rights and ensuring that the rights of women and girls are prominent in the campaign. There are also practical experiences of government that women can and should share in the mentoring of young women leaders, and I believe iKNOW Politics can and should help in these activities.

iKNOW Politics: What piece of advice would you share with iKNOW Politics members, particularly women candidates and officials, as they progress in their political careers?

It’s hard to share one piece of advice because there are many difficulties and barriers: sometimes it’s funding, sometimes it’s being able to have time with other responsibilities to devote to becoming the candidate nominated by the party. But it does need courage and a self-belief. I sometimes find that women are more hesitant to have that self-belief, that sense of vision and purpose which may be inside them but then they say, “Oh but who am I to think that I can do it?” Whereas you don’t find that men have the same self-doubt sometimes.

I think it is partly because women have not yet become accustomed to the position of being in power. If you say the word Prime Minister, people assume it’s a man - except in exceptional circumstances it’s not, it’s a woman - and similarly with other positions. This leads me to a joke that I share with my successor now as President of Ireland. I served for seven years as the first woman president and then when I went to the United Nations I was succeeded by the current president Mary McAleese. She served her initial seven years and then she went forward for a second term.

She was not opposed because she has been doing a good job. So now we both joke that in Ireland small boys weep on their mothers' knee and say, “Why can’t I grow up to be president?” because they’ve seen more than fourteen years, and now it will be twenty-one years, of having a woman as President. And that’s the point. Little girls are used to seeing that all the important posts are filled by men, so it’s very good for small boys to have doubts about whether they can ever run for President. It’s a joke but there’s something behind it. I am not one of those that believe that women have to support women candidates no matter what their caliber, and I think we need to be free of that sense.

It’s not a case of “I have to support you because I’m a woman and you’re a woman,” but more a case of recognizing that we do need many more women in positions of responsibility, for the sake of all humanity, for the sake of women and men. And there are women of great caliber that find it difficult to come through because of the various barriers. It intrigues me that women who have achieved high office are much more likely than their male counterparts to admit mistakes they have made or talk about problems they are encountering. It’s as if we are still in a situation where we don’t presume to be elected or to hold high office, so when it happens we have a quality of monitoring our own ability to do it well or not.

That’s why part of the advice is believe in yourself and have a strong sense that you will make a good contribution. We do need more women making that contribution, so stick at it and hopefully get the support you deserve.