Cathaoirleach, Leas-Chathaoirleach, Members of the Seanad, I never thought for one minute when I was a Member of the House that I would be invited back to address you, least of all from the Minister's chair. I feel reassured that the Cathaoirleach is from County Mayo and will protect me. I was so enthusiastic about attending that I arrived early, which made the protocol more difficult.
As Senators have heard, I had the honour to spend 20 years in the House from 1969 until August 1989 when I believed I was retiring altogether from public life. For nine of those years, I was a member of the Labour Party with Front Bench and back bench experience. I am pleased that there is a better gender balance now — some 18 of the 60 Senators are women — than when I was first elected, but there is still room for improvement. When I was elected in 1969 there were six women. When I signed the roll as an overawed young Senator, I met Senator Kit Ahern, a long-standing Fianna Fáil Senator who I am sure many Members remember. She drew me aside and gave me a piece of advice, namely, that lady Members of the Seanad wore hats. I did not like wearing hats, but I wore a small beret my first day. I have always hated the photograph that was taken. Subsequently, I learned that it was not necessary for ladies to wear hats.
I have been asked to share some of my experiences as a Senator and to outline how it contributed to my later work. I am pleased that the first discussion theme chosen by the Seanad relates to human rights and that a former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning, the chair of the Irish Human Rights Commission, IHRC, has already addressed the Chamber in that context.
Four areas of my time in the Seanad contributed helpfully to my later work. For example, my experience of contributing to the legislative process taught me to read closely the small print of legislation and to understand the technical side of drafting, amending and speaking on the different Stages of a Bill before the House. It was an honour as President of Ireland to sign Bills into law or, after consulting the Council of State, to refer some of them to the Supreme Court under Article 26. Obviously, one does not need to be a former Member of the Dáil or Seanad to become Uachtarán na hÉireann, but it was undoubtedly helpful for me, particularly in respect of that function.
My second reflection is on my first Bill that I sought to promote as a Private Members' Bill, which was meant to amend the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 as it related to access to contraceptives. Two Senators — John Horgan and Dr. Trevor West — joined with me in tabling a short Private Members' Bill, but it was never even given a First Reading. This was unusual and I am unsure as to whether other Bills suffered a similar fate. We tried a number of times to have it included on the Order of Business. The day it was debated, it was done suddenly and defeated in a vote.
When I announced that I was going to introduce the legislation, I was taken aback by the extent of the public outcry, the hate letters and being denounced from pulpits. I had been focusing on the fact that the law was not in touch with reality. As Senators may recall, married women could not avail of the contraceptive pill at the time unless their doctors certified that they had cycle regulation problems. It must have been the weather because there was an awful lot of married women with cycle regulation problems. Equally, it was not against the law to use a condom, but it was against criminal law to buy or sell one. Coming from Harvard Law School as I did, I did not believe the law was conforming with reality and it was obvious that it needed to be amended.
I have since reflected a great deal on what I did not consider then, namely, the fact that I was touching on a sensitive part of Irish culture — the unwillingness to discuss sex even in the family, never mind in a public way. I learned a valuable lesson that proved important when I became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
A major category of human rights violations is that of the harmful traditional practices applied to women, for example, genital mutilation, genital cutting, forced marriages, etc. Supporters of these practices claim the human rights agenda is a Western agenda and that they have different cultural approaches. One of my first acts as High Commissioner was to support those special rapporteurs on violence against women and relevant issues who were Muslim women. They advocated that, as opposed to being cultural, these were harmful traditional practices. Even so, it was clear that the only way one could achieve sustainable change was from within, be it in the village, the community or the country. I brought my Seanad experience to the issue. It took ten years for the Government to amend the law on contraceptives and to achieve what we called at the time an Irish solution to an Irish problem. It presented an important opportunity to understand that, if one wants to change behaviours and attitudes, it is a slow, educational and awareness raising process that requires much patience, stamina and consistency.
Although I mentioned that I do not like wearing hats, I now wear a different one and have been officially designated an elder in the sense that I was honoured to be included in The Elders group brought together by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Given the participation of strong women like Graça Machel, Gro Brundtland and Ela Bhatt, from the beginning The Elders have wanted to highlight the way in which the wrong application of religion and tradition can subjugate and hold back women in certain respects. Our statement received strong support from the male members of The Elders, notably President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Tutu, President Fernando Cardoso, Kofi Annan and others.
We decided that we needed to highlight a practical area in which it was necessary to call on religious leaders and traditional chiefs to support the empowerment and rights of women. We took the example of child marriage. From my time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I knew that child marriage was a major issue, but I had underestimated the number of girls affected. Approximately 10 million girls per year marry well below the age of 18 years, the recognised age under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
When Archbishop Tutu, Ms Machel, Ms Brundtland and I visited Ethiopia this year, I noted a difference between the law and the practice. Ethiopia has a good law that states no one below the age of 18 years should marry, but we visited the Amhara region where the average age of marriage was 12 years. We met eight, nine and ten year olds who had been married by their families. More than anything else, the situation was brought home to me when I spoke with a 16 year old accompanied by her 30 year old husband in a village that was addressing the question of child marriage from within — increased education levels, keeping girls in school and involving the whole of the village and the imams. To relax the 16 year old, I asked her to tell me about her wedding day. She looked at me with the saddest eyes and said she had to drop out of school. I had a sudden picture of this 15 year old happily playing in school with her 15 year old companions and the next day her parents tell her she is now married and must move into her husband's family home and do whatever is asked of her, by a husband whom she has never met before. This is the reality of child marriage. The lessons I learned in Seanad Éireann seeking to introduce that Bill stay with me.
A third point is the ability to table motions on different issues. It allows a very wide range of issues to be raised that otherwise probably would not be raised in the Oireachtas, issues of prison reform which can come up if there is a Bill but often need to come up on their own. I remember raising an issue of the persecution of Jews in Russia. I could raise issues on foreign affairs as well as local issues. That was a reminder to me of constantly seeking to pursue human rights issues. Sometimes I found there was a parallel between what I might be trying to do as a barrister in a case in court, instructed by my clients, and raising a matter in the Seanad. The long litigation on Wood Quay crossed the courts, Seanad Éireann and Dublin City Council at different times.
The fourth area, was the opportunity as a member of the Seanad to participate in international issues and discussions and, to some extent, to travel abroad in that context. I took part in several meetings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It was interesting to see the different perspectives, not having had much experience before that. I became an active member of AWEPA, and I know that some Members of the Dáil and Seanad are still very active in AWEPA, the link between European and African parliamentarians supporting parliamentary democracy in African countries. When we started in the early days of AWEPA it was, of course, to address the apartheid issue. It was important that strong members of the Dáil and Seanad were speaking out on apartheid. When I became High Commissioner for Human Rights, I had a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom I adore, and he asked me to become a member of the eminent group of AWEPA, so I still have a strong link with AWEPA. He sent me e-mail and I loved the way he was beginning to tell me the reasons that he would like me to serve on the eminent group of AWEPA. He obviously got tired working and he said: "Do this for me, Mary — how is that for whitemail?" I thought that was a lovely expression, instead of blackmail, it was whitemail.
That early experience of linking with the issue of apartheid, the need to build up democracy in African countries, the opportunities in the Inter-Parliamentary Union certainly contributed to my growing interest in international human rights, going beyond the human rights at the European level that I was very much engaged in and taking cases to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the court in Luxembourg. I became very interested in development issues, the issues of developing countries and, in particular, issues in Africa. That is why, when I was elected President, I said at my inauguration that I hoped I would have an opportunity to in some way address international human rights issues. I was very aware of the limits on the role and powers of the President. They were more evident then because the office had not been fully developed as thankfully it is now. It was a great honour to be the first Head of State to go to Somalia in 1992 and to make a number of subsequent visits to Rwanda, after the genocidal killing there, as Uachtarán na hÉireann.
It was also an issue which as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I saw both the extent of violations of human rights and also the work of organisations on women's, children's and broad human rights issues and the need to be more supportive, in particular, of rights to food and safe water, health, education, which led to me establishing an organisation called Realising Rights, which was never intended to be permanent and which came to a planned end last December. In the meantime, travelling in African countries, I became aware of the extent to which climate shocks were undermining poor livelihoods of indigenous farmers, of poor communities and of those in slums. It was either flooding, prolonged drought and then flash flooding. The farmers had no seasons to plan and sow. That led to the establishment of my current work, the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice. This is my last endeavour. I intend to work at this for the remainder of my time. Again, I see the early seeds in the Seanad.
I want to turn to the way in which the Seanad itself and the Oireachtas has developed since my time. There is a much more developed committee system now. I believe this is a necessary feature of modern parliaments. I would like to have us reflect a little on the role of elected assemblies in the modern world. The elders have been very focused on the Arab Spring, on the way in which significant numbers of people were able to come out to the streets and squares because they had social media to contact each other and they knew there would be not just one or two, but ten or 20 or 1,000. They would be protected by numbers. I was recently in Tunisia and saw the good election that has taken place and the beginnings of a parliamentary assembly which will begin drafting a new constitution. Obviously in Egypt there are more difficulties and in many of the countries of the region. For me it was kind of affirmation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that those from countries where their leaders would have told me as High Commissioner that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is western rights, but these were the very rights that these people were coming out in the street and squares to proclaim. They wanted human dignity, human rights, democracy, accountability and jobs. I think we should think across to what is happening in many countries in the developed world, including Ireland. You have occupy movements, that are questioning thestatus quo, that are looking for new systems, new approaches. I wanted to quote from a speech made by Hillary Clinton in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Women and the Economy Summit, APEC, which was meeting on women and the economy. It was a very thoughtful speech. There is a somewhat long passage in it that I think bears reflection:
Because when everyone has a chance to participate in the economic life of a nation, we can all be richer. More of us can contribute to the global GDP and the gap between the developed and the developing contries would narrow significantly as productivity rises in economies from Haiti to Papua New Guinea.
But that great, global dream cannot be realised by tinkering around the edges of reform. Nor, candidly, can it be secured though any singular commitment on the part of us here. It requires, rather, a fundamental transformation, a paradigm shift in how governments make and enforce laws and policies, how businesses invest and operate, how people make choices in the marketplace.
The transformational nature of this undertaking that lies ahead is, in my view, not unlike other momentous shifts in the economic history of our world. In the 19th century, many nations began moving from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Then the inventions and mass productions of that era gave rise in the 20th century to the information age and the knowledge economy, with an unprecedented rise in innovation and prosperity.
As information transcends borders and creates opportunities for farmers to bank on mobile phones and children in distant villages to learn remotely, I believe that here, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are entering the participation age, where every individual, regardless of gender or other characteristics, is poised to be a contributing and valued member of the global marketplace.
That is a very interesting concept, the participation age. I invite Members of the Seanad to reflect on what it means for this House that we are entering the participation age. The Seanad has already begun that process by establishing the Seanad Public Petitions Committee, which I have learned a little more about from the Leader of the House. Having arrived early we had a chance to talk about it. It seems that it is bringing the Seanad closer to the public and hopefully will better inform the public of the work of the Seanad. I am particularly delighted as an official designated elder that the Seanad has adopted the human rights of older people as the theme for this term. I was very pleased to learn that groups have been invited who will address Members on this subject on the floor of the Seanad this afternoon. That would never have happened in my time. That is progress. Things are moving on. I wish Members well in this endeavour and in particular in thinking about the participation age and how elected bodies can serve well and adapt to and become much more inclusive and open and set new trends. Tá áthas an domhain orm bheith ar ais arís. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.