Population Services International

Mary Robinson with Heather Kitt

You and your fellow Elders have dedicated your lives to changing the world. Can you identify three milestones that have shaped the world we live in today?

MARY ROBINSON: A milestone that has always been close to my heart is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Not only is it the cornerstone document of the international human rights framework, but it continues to serve as a rallying point for people all around the world. It’s a reminder that from our common human dignity, we all have inalienable and indivisible rights that must be respected.

I would also identify the so-called ‘war on terror’ and its use as justification for the alarming curtailment of human rights that has occurred since 9/11. We must urge states to renew their commitment to the rule of law and emphasize that it is never acceptable to compromise human rights.

A third global event that will do most to shape our future is climate change. We have been slow to recognize the devastating impact that climate change is already having on communities around the world. I hope that my new foundation, the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, will be able to provide a platform for those marginalized voices who have usually done the least to cause climate change, but are suffering most from its effect.

The Elders are committed to the realization of equality and empowerment of women and girls. What do you feel is the most pressing issue affecting the health and well-being of girls and women?

MR: A pressing issue that has received comparatively less attention is that of child marriage. It is for this reason that my fellow Elders and I are currently trying to increase awareness about the harm that it poses to millions of girls every year. The impact of this practice is enormous – one in three girls in the developing world is married before she turns 18. Not only is child marriage a clear human rights violation, but girls who are married before the age of 18 face a myriad of risks: they are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, to die in child birth, and to experience domestic violence and sexual abuse. By raising the average age of marriage above 18 and keeping girls in school, whole communities will benefit.

Some Elders have recruited their grandchildren to help in their efforts. What is the role of the younger generations in carrying on the work of the Elders?

MR: Engaging with young people has been one of the highlights of my work with the Elders. I am always impressed not just with the freshness of their ideas, but with their commitment to playing a role in the improvement of their communities. My hope is not really for the younger generations to carry on our work as such; they are fully capable of setting their own agenda based on their own experiences and ideas. What I do hope they carry forward from the Elders are the values that our mission represents, as well as the conviction that we can all change the world for the better.

What do you hope the Elders leave behind as a legacy?

MR: I hope that we can convey the idea that what the world needs is the continuous engagement of ‘ordinary’ individuals on the issues that matter to them. For instance, while we can commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marking such milestones will have little impact if people across the world, in all levels of society, do not celebrate and defend those rights in their daily lives.

I'm Heather. I'm a medical student, and my day-to-day life involves pretty much what you would expect – going to the library, attending classes and going on clinical attachments to local hospitals. Where I differ is in my extra-curricular activities that focus on the implications of climate change on healthcare.

I have always been interested in climate change, but my focus was defined by an experience in India where I spent three months volunteering with a local doctor. It was truly humbling to see how healthcare was valued in their community, in contrast to how we in the U.K. take public health for granted.

Since my return I have been involved in many public health initiatives working with climate change and health, sexual health and mental health. I personally feel that the implications of climate change on healthcare do not get the serious consideration they warrant. The Lancet has reported that climate change is the greatest public health threat of the 21st century, and temperature fluctuations and altered weather patterns could threaten millions of lives globally.

I am currently working on raising awareness on this issue in my capacity as the program director for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for the Climate Change and Health Project. This project works in three areas: reducing the carbon emissions of healthcare, including carbon auditing at the hospital; working with district health boards on greener policies around healthcare provision; and putting together an academic module for my university on the subject of climate change to increase awareness in the medical profession.

In the coming year, I hope to play a role in expanding our health movement to Brazil and Chile. The work I do is something I believe in and am deeply passionate about. I am not sure what drives me only that I want to leave the world a better place than how I found it.

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