Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland (1990-1997) and former United Nations high commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. Born in Ireland, she was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College) and Harvard Law School. She has received numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. She is also a member of the Elders, former chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, and a member of the Club of Madrid. She currently serves as president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.

When I was a little girl, my father, who was a doctor, would allow me to go along with him on house calls. He was taking care of very poor people, in a large rural area in the West of Ireland. I didn’t fully understand what was going on – why the patients were sick, how he was making them better – but as I sat in the back seat of his car, I was intrigued. The work was solemn, important, and serious. I noted how long it took my father to say goodbye at the door. He would stand listening, often leaning down a little if it was a woman or elderly person. I loved it – I felt a part of something very adult.

We are talking about some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. We must help to have their voices heard, and their basic rights protected.

My grandfather, who lived down the road from us in Ballina, County Mayo, also made me feel this way. He was of the age and disposition where he had no idea how to talk to a child. So he talked to me as if I were an adult. I felt so important.  He was a lawyer, and passionate about his work. He had a profound sense of being on the side of the little guy – the tenant against the landlord, David vs. Goliath – and he would talk to me about these cases. I was riveted. This, I think, sparked something in me that has never diminished: a sense of fairness, a belief in the possibility for social change.

My mother was also a doctor, although she gave up medicine to have five children, all quickly, one after the other. I have said before that this caused my first real interest in “human rights” – being wedged between four boys! My mother never said she wanted it any other way, but her experience – when I reflected on it later in my own life – led me to understand that the real key is to have choices. There still is not, really, the necessary range of choices for women.

Holding my own amongst those four brothers did give me a competitive spirit, a willingness to jump right in to the rough-and- tumble if that’s what it takes, and to think and dream big. And those attributes, I would soon come to see, would serve me very well.

I was twenty-five and elected to the Senate of Ireland on a platform that included the idea of dismantling a ban on contraception that was part of the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act. I wasn’t the first person to take this issue on, but I was the first who really tried to change the law, by introducing a bill in February 1971. At the time it was a criminal offense to buy or sell a condom, but it was not illegal to use one. Also, married women required a medical note that they had menstrual cycle problems in order to avail of a contraceptive pill.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first step in a process that would take more than a decade to complete. When a vote was called, I had to request permission in the Senate for the bill to be officially printed and distributed. I thought of my grandfather and his trying to help “the little guy” – and now I was the little guy! I was in a tiny minority – it was David vs. Goliath – and Goliath had the Catholic Church behind him. I had to stand up and talk firmly about issues that embarrassed many senators. Sometimes it’s a matter of being able to say what others are too embarrassed to talk about. The bill was defeated by a large vote.

At the time I received a deluge of hate mail. Condoms were posted through my letterbox, and in my hometown the bishop denounced me from the pulpit. The Leader of the House in the Senate said that I was behaving in a “schoolgirlish, irresponsible manner.” People said that a change in the law would be a “curse upon our country.” This experience – fighting very hard as a small David against an enormous, powerful Goliath – taught me so much, and inspired me greatly, to this day.

In the summer of 2011 I visited Somalia. It had been almost twenty years since I’d been there as president of Ireland drawing attention to the food crisis in 1992. I have not been able to get the suffering of the people of Somalia out of my system since then. I was quite discouraged to see that the situation had become much worse. It was devastating to see that so little had changed for the better. The drought was very serious, compounded by poor governance, climate change, and increasing food prices. The U.N. declared two regions of Somalia to be suffering from famine and that tens of thousands of Somalis – mostly children – had died.

The Horn of Africa had experienced the eight hottest years in succession ever, so that the drought was affecting about 13 million people spread over parts of Ethiopia and Kenya as well. I asked each of the women I met in Somalia, and later in the Dadaab camp in Kenya, how many children she had. Not one said fewer than six, and many had seven or eight. I realized that their sense of reality was that by having a number of children they had some hope that one or two might survive. That is not a position any woman should ever be in.

We are talking about some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. We must help to have their voices heard, and their basic rights protected.

In many ways I am very different from that headstrong twenty-five- year-old impatient to change Irish law on family planning – I hope I am more humble, for one. But in many ways, I haven’t changed. Family planning, maternal and child health, and reproductive rights are still issues that are of great importance to me. I hope I never forget those formative, inspiring days of my childhood, witnessing poverty and hardship from the back of my father’s car, watching as he tried to light a candle in the darkness, one house at a time, by having the patience to listen.