Violence and bullying rob people’s dignity, Higgins says

President criticises ‘cowardly’ cyberbullying at reception to mark HeforShe campaign

Violence and bullying, including through social media, have a destructive effect on people's lives and rob them of their dignity, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Mr Higgins said he regularly spoke in schools around the country about “the enormous, destructive impact it has on a person’s life to be bullied”.

He was speaking following a reception at Áras an Uachtaráin on Friday to mark the United Nations HeforShe campaign to celebrate the role of men in advancing women's rights, and in particular in combating gender-based violence.

The technological world had entirely changed and with the arrival of social media had come great opportunities, the President said.


"We can say, for example, in relation to technology that the mobile phone changed things in Africa for men, women and children. But equally we can say that social media has been turned into an instrument of abuse.

"I have to say, it is quite shocking what people feel free to say behind the cowardly mask of alleged anonymity," he said in an interview with The Irish Times.

“What crosses borders is the destructive effect on a person’s life when you are robbed of your dignity. I’m half a century dealing with human rights issues across the world; the common word across it all is dignity.”

Mr Higgins said Ireland had the opportunity to give great leadership in tackling gender-based violence.

He had also been distressed, he said, to hear stories of students being intimidated and sexually harassed.

“But unfortunately, very many of them feel that they can’t speak about it. Then again of the very small number who do speak about it, they find it hard to be believed, to be heard with sensitivity.”

The President was invited by UN under-secretary-general Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in February last year to be one of nine heads of state to champion the HeforShe campaign.

He said it had the engagement of men and boys at its core, seeking to “bring one half of humanity together in support of the other half of our human family” and engaging institutions and organisations that were in a position to influence change.

Essential message

Mr Higgins said he had committed to using the influence of his office to convey a simple but essential message: that men must stand up and show leadership if women’s rights are to be fully achieved.

“All of society loses when you have gender inequality. All of society is flawed if gender violence is allowed to occur, is tolerated, and if an intolerable silence prevails around this grave issue. Then too, no invocation of cultural differences or tradition can ever be accepted as an excuse for gender violence.”

The President was joined at Áras an Uachtaráin on Friday by women working with female survivors of violence, including representatives of women’s refuges and Safe Ireland, a national organisation of 39 domestic violence services.

Wicklow singer Hozier performed his song Cherry Wine, the proceeds of which he is donating to charities who support those who have suffered abuse.

Gerry Collins of the business group Ibec, David Joyce of Ictu, Football Association of Ireland chief executive John Delaney, Kevin Donoghue of the Union of Students in Ireland and Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett of the Defence Forces also attended.

Broadcaster Ryan Tubridy told the audience that in using the term "domestic abuse" we lose sight of the reality. Such violence "reduces people", Tubridy said.

“No one should feel reduced.”

Sharon O’Halloran, chief executive of Safe Ireland, said Ireland could be the safest country in the world for women and children. But to achieve this, we had to change “culture and attitudes that mean that domestic violence was too often not believed or taken seriously”.

Ms O’Halloran said that on average 12,500 women and children seek support from domestic violence services in a year.

Parts of the interview with the President will be available on The Women's Podcast on on Monday.