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Mary Robinson addresses the Inclusion Plenary at OGP Canada 2019. (Photo: Government of Canada)

Delivering the closing keynote on gender and inclusion, Mary Robinson calls on women to get involved in political struggles and show solidarity with each other to secure justice and open up the halls of government for our children and grandchildren.

This speech was delivered at the Open Government Partnership Summit in Ottawa, Canada on 30 May 2019.

Excellency, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends,

What an honour it is to deliver this closing keynote after such a rich and stimulating day of discussions. And what a privilege it is for me to to see how OGP has gone from strength to strength since I was an ambassador at its launch 8 years ago. Open government has always been about much more than transparency, it is about inclusion - bringing in voices that have traditionally been marginalised and ignored - and it is about justice.

The promise of SDG 16 was to put governance at the heart of the world’s development goals, but frankly, there are too few places talking about how we implement those targets.

The OGP community is one of those places - from advancing inclusion, to anti-corruption to access to justice this is one of the most important fora for taking words on paper and turning them into action.

In light of what we have heard today, I think this summit has served as a great example of how an inclusive, gendered approach can deliver innovative, progressive new models of governance that better equip all societies to tackle the global challenges that weigh upon us. Without transparency and inclusion, you cannot have good governance and justice: it’s as simple as that.

We know that too many women are excluded from decision-making, we know that too much data on which we make decisions is not gender-disaggregated, and we know that when women are not in the room, decisions are made that ignore half the population.

We need more open and inclusive structures for governments to make decisions - and OGP fora can be role models for that, by bringing in the government officials and civil society leaders working on gender equality to see how open government can be a tool to help them.

Women’s perspectives are needed if we are to meaningfully open governments and deliver for all. By the same token, if women’s voices, needs and perspectives are not recognised and respected within the structures and institutions of government and the judiciary, any claims to transparency and inclusion will remain illusory and mendacious.

This means we women need to be organised, to get involved in political struggles and to show solidarity with each other. We know we cannot rely only on men to deliver the changes that will improve the lives of all humanity! But we need to work towards a collective cultural and psychological transformation, to move away from the situation so powerfully and succinctly summed up by the great Canadian feminist and writer Margaret Atwood:

“We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.”

Such deep-rooted attitudes are the product of the accumulated, sometimes unconscious practices and psychologies of centuries of patriarchal thought.

Sexism, misogyny and violence against women are all predicated on fear. Actions, policies and institutions are designed to keep women afraid – afraid of the violence they may suffer, afraid of the consequences of speaking out, afraid of standing up for their rights.

The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela of which I have the honour to be Chair, have recently launched an access to justice programme with a key focus on addressing violence against women. The need could hardly be more urgent. It is estimated that 35% of women worldwide – 1.3 billion people, equivalent to the entire populations of North America and Europe combined - have experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives.

This is more people than those who are impacted by terrorism, but – is it because they are “only” women? – it is not given the same political and economic priority by our male-dominated institutions of government. In order to address violence against women, we need to make concrete investment in funding prevention strategies as well as access to justice.

It is also important to increase the number of women in the justice sector – from police officers to judges. We need to make sure that funding goes to women’s groups and feminist movements who are doing the important work on the frontlines of addressing this issue and make sure that we give them a seat (or seats) at the table when discussing how best to develop strategies. This is why events like this are so important. They provide a safe space for women, and men, to share their experiences, reinforce their solidarity, and develop new ways of thinking and acting to fight prejudice and protect fundamental rights.

Personally, I have drawn comfort and strength from this solidarity and sisterhood throughout my career in public life: as a Senator in Ireland when women’s lives were massively impacted by patriarchal political and religious structures, which I also fought as a lawyer; as President when I sought to drive forward progressive changes; and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights when I was confronted by the appalling abuses inflicted upon women in conflict situations around the world.

I have learned that women can exert great power even when they are not within traditional power structures. Their voices should not only be heard because they are the victims of war and human rights abuses, but because they are the most effective peace builders, agents of change. As men take up arms, women hold communities together in times of war. This makes them stronger and better equipped to play a key role in securing real peace, as I saw for myself in Northern Ireland.

Just last week, I met some remarkable, resilient women refugees from South Sudan in a camp in western Ethiopia, because The Elders were having one of our meetings in Addis Ababa and we went to the camp. They had fled appalling violence in their home country and suffered unimaginable trauma, including terrible acts of sexual violence. We heard how they continued to run the gauntlet of rape and assault in the refugee camp as they went to gather brushwood for fires, while the men sat idly by and just accepted this as a fact of life.

It was enraging and infuriating, yet at the same time I couldn’t help but admire the determination of these women to keep providing for their families no matter the terrible risks this incurred.

These desperate situations may seem a world away from this hall and the debates about increased participation in political and legal life in the developed world. But there is a fundamental truth: we need to recognise that women experience political, economic, security and social developments in distinct ways, and that this expertise and experience gives them valuable insights into how to resolve problems that need to be fed into mainstream policymaking.

Women’s voices need to be heard, respected and believed. This ought to be self-evident, but sadly we all know it is not, especially as we have all learned in recent years about the sickening extent of sexual exploitation and abuse across so many parts of our global society, from the entertainment industry to religion, politics and the humanitarian sector.

Women who speak out, confront abusers, assert their rights and demand change are all too often subject to horrendous abuse, both in their workplaces and communities and also online. But it is vital for the future of all humanity that these women’s voices are heard.

Just take climate change, where female leaders have driven progress – from the tireless efforts of Christiana Figueres in reaching the 2015 Paris Agreement, to the persistence of President Heine of the Marshall Islands in drawing attention to the plight of small island states, to the countless, often nameless, women in vulnerable communities who hold their families together as sea waters rise, crops fail and men leave to search for work abroad. These are my heroes. They are the women I wrote about in my book on climate justice.

And now I've gone into the modern world as an Elder, and I have a podcast, called Mothers of Invention and the byline of the podcast is that climate change is a man-made problem and requires a feminist solution. And I do it with a young Irish woman called Maeve Higgins. She was eight years old when I was elected President. She's a stand-up, very successful comedian based in New York and the fun of it is that she is half respectful during our discussion with these mothers of invention that we interview. And she will never explain the byline but I feel maybe not so necessary in Canada actually. But I feel it's necessary, climate change is a man-made problem - a generic term for we are all responsible. Maybe men more than women because they have more power to pollute and do every wrong and they did. But we're all responsible and a feminist solution definitely includes men. I don't think I need to emphasise that here in Canada because you lead from the top on that issue which is great.

The Feminist Open Government Initiative is a similarly important step forward. When women and girls are absent from government, so are the knowledge and skills that limit the potential of ambitious reforms impacting daily lives. Nevertheless, it remains disappointing that only 82 OGP commitments include women or gender – Apparently its twice as many as it used to be but it only represents 2 percent of almost 4,000 commitments made by national and local governments. That’s not good enough at all.

When women are equal, contributing members of society, with access to information, health care, education, and work, those societies are more likely to succeed – and in a more inclusive and sustainable manner. So women need to be bold; we need to be supportive of each other; and we need to be disruptive, recognising that power is not an end in itself but a means to securing a better future for generations to come.

All of us here should make the following commitment: when you have the power to make space for a younger woman, for an indigenous woman or for a grassroots woman, you should do so. As a positive example of inclusion, I am incredibly heartened to see the progress been made in OGP to bring together a coalition of governments like Argentina, Indonesia, Macedonia and Sierra Leone who are using their OGP membership to make justice more open and accessible.

In closing, I want to challenge all the OGP members at this Summit to think about how you can advance this vital goal of closing the justice gap.

There are three ways in which OGP can help with opening justice:

  • Legal empowerment and legal services: Ensuring that people have access to legal services, which include but are not limited to the formal justice system.

  • Open justice: This is about making the justice system more transparent, participatory, and accountable.

  • Justice as an enabler of open government: In this category, OGP governments can empower judiciaries and the public to hold the executive to account for being open.

As you know, governments will be reporting on Goal 16 in the HLPF in July and that will go forward to the SDG Summit in September. 

Taken together, this is a formidable challenge, but with political will, courage, sisterhood and solidarity, I believe it is eminently possible.

I have very much enjoyed this OGP meeting because there is a surprisingly good gender balance in the halls and in the participation from the podiums and that doesn't happen in all fora so OGP, take a bow.

You're not bad. You can get better and especially on justice.

Thank you very much.


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