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Human rights leader and Ireland's first woman president says empowering women empowers men

Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robinson, was shocked to learn that 7,000 women seek refuge in the YWCA-Spokane domestic-violence shelter each year and that the average age of a homeless person in YWCA programs is eight.

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson
Those facts, however, support her point that human rights must matter close to home.

Mary spoke at the recent YWCA Women of Achievement Luncheon in Spokane.

President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002 and current chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, Mary asserts that human rights are relevant in the “small places” of life.

Visiting shelters in Ireland, she found women working through guilt for enduring violence at home and then for leaving it.  She realized the government should provide funds so shelters for women could improve services.

Mary served a seven-year term as president and was succeeded by Mary McAleese, who has been elected for a second term.

“Small boys in Ireland now weep at their mothers’ knees, asking why they can’t grow up to be president of Ireland,” she said.

Commenting on the YWCA’s new commitment “to eliminate racism and empower women,” she noted that the phrase “empowering women” now can include empowering men in the same way that the words “men” and “he” were once thought to encompass women. 

As she meets with 31 members of the Council of Women World Leaders, which she helped found in 1996, she learns of their visions for their nations.  Ten of 15 points they have promoted to improve life have been achieved.

“Everyone in the world should realize they have human rights and dignity, as recognized under the UN Human Rights Charter,” she said, adding that government and corporate leaders should understand they have a role in promoting rights. 

Because millions of women do not know they have rights, Mary suggests taking “human rights out of the box and making them simple, practical and relevant to trade, health and migration—the human face of globalization.”
Working with several other women leaders on the Ethical Globalization Initiative, she said they have identified several challenges for women and girls:

• One issue of global health is maternal mortality.  More than half of women who die in childbirth or after have no access to safe water or to anyone who knows how to care for them.

• Education must be extended to girls so they will know they have rights and options.

• The HIV/AIDS pandemic has a severe impact on women, especially in Africa where 29 million people are HIV positive or have AIDS. Only 400,000 have access to treatment.  About 60 percent of those with HIV/AIDS are girls and women.

“It’s about empowerment.  Women and girls trade sex for food, shelter or education.  They are raped.  They feel they have no protection from uncles or other men in their families.

The ABC approach—abstinence, being faithful in marriage and condoms—does not work well in many parts of the world,” Mary said.
• Abstinence is not possible because of inequality, intergenerational sex in families and need for food, shelter and education.

• Being faithful does not work because married women cannot say “no” to husbands even if they are infected with AIDS.

• Using condoms requires that a woman to be able to negotiate with her male partner to use them.

Mary helped convince the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS to work with a pharmaceutical company to develop a female condom and a microbicide gel, developed by a business woman to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. 

Girls and women need to change both their cultural expectations and their behavior to negotiate for their rights so they can protect their lives, she said.

“The work of the YWCA has strong spiritual grounding and human rights grounding.  It’s not just about all being free with equal rights, but also that everyone owes duties to the community.  Without that, we do not achieve our full identity,” Mary said.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © December 2004