Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and more former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. Born Mary Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo (1944), the daughter of two physicians, she was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), King's Inns Dublin and Harvard Law School to which she won a fellowship in 1967.
A committed European, she also served on the International Commission of Jurists, the Advisory Committee of Interights, and on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees. The recipient of numerous honours and awards throughout the world, Mary Robinson is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the American Philosophical Society and, since 2002, has been Honorary President of Oxfam International. A founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, she serves on many boards including the Vaccine Fund, and chairs the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Currently based in New York, Mary Robinson is now leading Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative. Its mission is to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage.
Question: Is religion an impediment to women’s rights?
Mary Robinson: I think we have to be careful in how we look at that, and the Elders that I belong to, the Elders that were brought together when Nelson Mandela gave a lot of thought to how we could support equality of women and girls, the empowerment of women and girls. And we actually decided that we would focus on that difficult issue, that religion and different religions and tradition in culture is sometimes distorted and not only sometimes, but frequently distorted to subjugate women and limit them, and even justify harmful practices like genital cutting. And the sheer sense that the boy is more important, the boy will go into the priesthood, the boy will go into the religious life, does have a bearing and religious leaders have to understand that they have a responsibility to promote the equality and empowerment of women and that may mean they have to change practices in churches and mosques and temples.