When she was still a small and bookish girl, holed up in the library of a Sacred Heart nuns’ school in Dublin, Mary Robinson read about towering human-rights figures—Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi—and dreamed of doing something worthwhile with her life. Before long, and famously, she did: first, as one of Ireland’s youngest senators and a barrister taking up cases with the European Court of Human Rights; then, as Ireland’s first female president, promoting peace in Northern Ireland and reaching out to the country’s marginalized communities; and, from 1997 to 2002, as the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, bearing witness to, and calling for international action on, vicious conflicts and widespread suffering in places such as Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Chechnya.
Now a member of Nelson Mandela’s Elders and the president of the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice—and a 2009 recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom—Robinson has detailed her career in a new memoir, Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice. From her early years in western Ireland, where she grew up in a large, loving, and faith-filled family, through her advocacy for the world’s most vulnerable citizens, Robinson’s story is one of determination, moral courage, and profound integrity of spirit.
In honor of International Women’s Day, I recently sat down with Robinson in Washington, D.C., to talk about her book, her long history of fighting on behalf of women’s rights, and her latest efforts to bring climate justice into the international spotlight. Here are excerpts from the interview:
In your career as a barrister, you worked on many cases that dealt with women’s rights, like access to contraception or equal pay for equal work. And we’re still fighting some of those battles today. Do you find it frustrating that these are still questions that we have to debate?
I do find it frustrating, but also I think I recognize that the struggle is not one that’s necessarily always going forward. We have to be resilient and know that. I still feel very strongly about reproductive health, and I chair a Global Leaders Council on reproductive health. I was recently in Malawi with five other members of the council joining me and the now president of Malawi, Joyce Banda—she’s [also] a member—and we were helping her on her Safe Motherhood initiative. Malawi, in the 1960s, had the same population as Ireland: 3 million. We are now at 4.6, going on 4.7 million; Malawi is 15 million. But Malawi by 2050 will be 50 million. Malawi by the end of the century will be 120 million. Nobody really disputes these figures—these are the projections. Because the family size has come down from 6.5 to 5.7. There’s a 42 percent take-up of contraceptives—but it’s women with four to five children. There are no secondary schools, virtually, for girls. The marriage age is extremely low. Girls get pregnant very young outside marriage. And so that reality, in a country that is suffering already from climate shocks ... the fact that in some parts of the world there is a denial of the need for reproductive health or access to contraceptives infuriates me.
And it’s not only an issue in the developing world—I remember during the recent election, our senator from New York [Kirsten Gillibrand] said that if women made up half the legislature, we wouldn’t even be talking about contraception. It would be a nonissue.
I was, I must say, a little dismayed by some of the issues and some of the statements during the election. That’s why I say the struggle goes on.
I would love to hear your thoughts on balancing work life and home life as a woman, because that’s such a huge discussion right now. You raised three children while working and running for office—do you have any tips for women on how they should handle it?
I had a somewhat privileged upbringing. We were doctor’s children, and we had maids, and we had our nanny, the beloved Nanny Coyne, who not only helped rear me and my four brothers, but came and helped me to rear my children. So I’m aware that I’ve had supports that not everybody has. And probably the most important support was a very supportive husband [Nick Robinson], all the way.
My sense is there’s no one size fits all, obviously, and there’s no real formula. I had some values myself, which were extremely strong. One was that the children come first. And I remember the night that I was elected president of Ireland, we had gathered the children together, and I said to them, “I may be president of Ireland, but you are the most important to me.”
I think the answer, probably, in part, to the work-life-balance issue is that men must think more about it. It’s simply that—men must think more about it. And then you can get a sense of what are the priorities when you have a family. Because to me, you have a family, and you have children—they have to be your priority. And nothing else matters.
The farming in Africa is done mostly by women. Seventy to 80 percent of the farmers are women. So if the seasons are not cyclical, it’s women who have to adapt.
As the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, you worked with women who were acting as mediators in post-conflict situations. You saw that in Northern Ireland; we’ve also seen that in Africa. It seems that women do play that role and are often the ones who reach out across those barriers, at great personal risk.
I saw it a lot in Ireland—it was women who came out from the Catholic housing estates and their counterparts from the Protestant housing estates, at great risk. And yet they weren’t the ones getting the bright lights and the television. And even more so in African contexts. Somebody rightly said: peace negotiations are bad men talking to other bad men in front of cameras, getting a lot of attention. And it’s the women who are working to make it happen.
Like Leymah Gbowee in Liberia.
Liberia is a great example—[as shown in the documentary] Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The women actually insisted on [peace]. And I’m very aware of the strong African women, who have become my good friends now, who are working so hard on peace and security issues and are now insisting on being given more recognition and being at the table. And I have to say, I give great credit to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who is appointing senior women much, much more as these special representatives in really tough areas. He seems to understand that actually women are better at these very tough issues.
I would love it if you could explain the idea of how climate change disproportionately affects women.
It’s so clear and obvious, when you undermine poor livelihoods, it is women who bear the brunt. First of all, and my focus in Africa because that’s my knowledge base, particularly, the farming in Africa is done mostly by women. Seventy to 80 percent of the farmers are women. So if the seasons are not cyclical, and they’re not anymore—there are long periods of drought and flash flooding—it’s women who have to adapt. Women on the whole don’t get agriculture training. And they’re having to learn now to diversify their crops, to have seeds that can survive in drought or survive in waterlogged [conditions], and so there’s a disconnect between even the donor community for this agricultural training, mainly focusing on men, and who’s [actually doing the farming]. Also, if there’s more drought and less water, the women have to go further for firewood, and right across the board, it affects women more. And I learned a lot from a good friend of mine at this stage, because we met quite a bit, Constance Okellet of Uganda, as I mention in the book. She’s the mother of eight in Uganda who, when she was growing up, had seasons. And now they have this drought and flash flooding and a destroyed school. But what happened when you have this weather shock and the school was destroyed? There’s no insurance, there’s no plan B—it’s the women. It was the women, because they knew how to form a women’s group, who pulled that village together. And she became a leader by necessity, and then Oxfam learned about her, and she learned that it wasn’t that God was punishing the village, it was rich people.
Here in the States, there’s much discussion and worry about what lies ahead for the women of Afghanistan after our troops withdraw in 2014.
I do worry greatly about women in Afghanistan. I know Sima Samar, the chair of the human-rights commission there. And she’s very concerned. She was the minister for women’s affairs on that famous visit to Afghanistan [in the book] where they cleared the cinema [for women to gather during International Women’s Day and draw up a charter of women’s rights].
It was so interesting to hear that women had once been able to go to that cinema [before the Taliban’s rule] and that Afghanistan does have this tradition of educated, professional women who had to go totally underground under the Taliban.
Actually, a very good human-rights friend of mine, Asma Jahangir from Pakistan, told me once that she went on her honeymoon to Afghanistan, to the capital, Kabul, because it was such a progressive city compared to where she was coming from in Pakistan, that whole past before the Taliban. And then you had these wonderful women who were in the government, who were professors, who were lawyers, who were community workers, who were nurses, and many of them had been part of the secret teaching of girls.
One of the things that struck me in your book was that once women see other women in positions of power, it often spurs their own ambitions. You mentioned that after you stepped down as president of Ireland, four of the five candidates who ran for election were women (including the eventual winner).
In fact, after Mary McAleese had served about seven years—and I had served seven years—she then went for a second term, and we both used to tell the same joke: that small boys in Ireland would weep on their mother’s knee and say, “Why can’t I grow up to be president?” In the end it was 21 years [of women in the presidency].
The chapters on your family and your childhood in west Ireland were so rich in detail. Do you regret that your mother never saw you become president?
I regret that my mother never saw her grandchildren. She would have so loved them. And my father got such pleasure because of our grandchildren. I think I’ve been very, very fortunate. Fortunate in family life, also fortunate in being supported by very good teams. I had a great team in the office of president, and we were changing the presidency ... And at the end we strengthened that institution. That it has remained strong is a great sense of achievement. But it’s not my achievement, it’s the team’s achievement. It was exactly the same thing at the office of high commissioner. Part of the reason I was so stressed in the first few months was, I saw a staff that was demoralized, that didn’t have proper contracts, that wanted to do the work but felt stressed, and committees weren’t properly resourced. The rapporteurs felt often they were supposed to be paid for their travel, and their checks weren’t coming in. It was a huge management issue. By the end of the five years, I had a sleek team. And I do think I had wonderful colleagues in Realizing Rights. I now have a great team, a small team but a great team, in Dublin, in what we’re doing on Climate Justice. I love the fact that Climate Justice is not a term that people know about yet. And that gives me a great sense that we’re [onto something.]
There are so many people abroad who identify with their Irish heritage. And now, because of the financial crisis, we’re seeing a new wave of Irish emigration. Is this difficult for the country?
It is very sad. It’s very tough. I don’t want to minimize the pain that’s happening in Ireland of losing our young again. But it is a bit different. They’re on Skype every day, and there’s that sense that many of them ... will come back once things sort themselves out. It’s not like being driven from the country in the famine days, or even in the middle of the 19th century. I think we are pulling out of it, but people are questioning whether carrying on severe austerity is a good idea, because it’s very hard to grow out of a situation when the countries of the euro zone are in fact seeing no growth and very high unemployment. I worry greatly about very high unemployment. After all, work is a matter of human rights. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] is about the right to work. We do identify and define ourselves by what we do. That’s why we did a profile of decent work in African countries. I worry greatly about the huge unemployment in Africa, not least because one of the jobs that is becoming more and more available is crime—crime and drugs.
And, as you mention in your book, young women having to turn to prostitution.
Or even becoming pregnant. Early pregnancy is a factor of poverty. Yong girls have a role in life—whether they’re able to responsibly exercise that role is another matter.
Your work has been devoted to this idea of a set of shared moral principles around the world. Not too long ago, that idea was kind of out of vogue, and moral relativism was the rage. And now it seems like perhaps we’re coming back around to the idea that there are, in fact, a few principles we can agree upon as basic human rights.
When we started the foundation on climate justice, the first thing I wanted to do was to clarify what were the principles that would guide us. Basically, climate justice is about bringing out the injustice of how the impacts of climate hurt the poorest communities and in vulnerable places, who are least responsible. And then that we must prioritize the opportunities of low-carbon fuels for them—of lighting the home, of clean cook stoves. It’s both recognizing the injustice and prioritizing bringing them their right to develop. At the moment, we have a world that is already beginning to suffer social disruptions because of inequalities between and within countries. That could become much more aggravated.
And then we have the very real threat of climate change. We are aiming for staying below 2 degrees at first, but for parts of Africa, that will still be 2 degrees or maybe even 4. When I was back in Somalia, to learn that the Horn of Africa has had the eight hottest years in succession ever—and that’s an increasing problem in the whole Sahel. But that we could do a lot about. We can green areas, and there are good studies now of grasses that grow in partly salinated water. This could be a huge target. There are things we can do. But we have to be true to the facts.
Also, getting back to women, there are two things that encouraged me about getting women more and more involved in thinking, women of all ages. I actually agree with Graça Machel—I think that over the next 20 years in Africa, we will see dramatic increases in women participating, and I have no reason to think that wouldn’t be true in other parts of the world. And it’s also happening in the informal sector, of the poorest—the Shack/Slum Dwellers International of Sheela Patel, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. Numbers matter in a world that now can be connected so easily by mobile phone, by Internet. And very often it’s women—not exclusively, but very often it’s women who are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people.
The last thing I wanted to ask you—throughout your book, you mention your love of poetry and include snippets of poems. Do you have a favorite poem that inspires your work?
Well, I turn to the books nearest to me, as I said. The one that I probably come back to a lot, because it’s a teaching tool as well, is Seamus Heaney’s poem “From the Republic of Conscience.” I know Seamus very well. So for me, that poem tells such a beautiful story about how we need to become dual citizens, we need to become ambassadors of conscience. I like Seamus very much. I wanted to quote from Eavan [Boland] because of the way she is such a strong poet who can link with the very personal, quiet, insider issues—of giving birth, of waking at dawn to feed, that sort of thing. And the fact that she’s such an admired professor of poetry now and so clear on what she’s doing. I love that.