Seanad debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

3:05 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I move:

“That Seanad Éireann –
-recognises that childhood, as a time-specific and unique period in a person’s development, is a distinct space from adulthood;
-appreciates the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture;
-believes that every effort must be made to protect children and childhood against sexualisation and undue gender stereotyping;
-echoes the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs endorsement of Responsible Retailing: Retail Ireland Childrenswear Guidelines (June 2012) and her statement that ‘the preparation of these guidelines is yet another example of how working together we can, as a State and society, help to foster a culture where childhood is preserved and children are protected’;
-commends An Coimisiun Le Rinci Gaelacha, The Irish Dancing Commission, for introducing additional rules prohibiting the use of make-up including false eyelashes, tinted moisturiser, or any artificial tanning products for the face for all dancers aged 10 years and under. (Effective 1 March 2014.);
-believes that the participation, for financial gain, in a competition by minors, judged on attractiveness and physical attributes rather than discernible skill is contrary to the protection of children and preservation of childhood and therefore condemns child beauty pageants in Ireland;
-further holds that child beauty pageants run contrary to the values set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child;
-cognisant of the current economic climate, greatly appreciates the significant decision by each of the hotels approached by Universal Royalty back in September 2013 to decline hosting a child beauty pageant on their premises and welcomes the support of the Irish Hotels Federation in opposing child beauty pageants in Ireland;
-calls on all stakeholders to be resolute in opposing child beauty pageants in Ireland;
-calls on all Senators to formally endorse the appeal made by Senator Jillian van Turnhout in Seanad Éireann on 19 September 2013 to send a clear message that child beauty pageants have no place in Ireland; and
-seeks political consensus in its opposition to child beauty pageants across both Houses of the Oireachtas and invites Dáil Éireann to pass a similar Motion.”.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank her in advance for her support. I also thank my Independent Group colleagues, Senators Fiach MacConghail, Mary Ann O'Brien, Marie-Louise O'Donnell and Katherine Zappone for allowing our time to be used for this debate. In particular, I thank Senator O'Donnell who will be seconding the motion. I thank each and every Senator for their unanimous support of the motion. It is wonderful, heartening and exciting to see Seanad Éireann united across political divides and ideological differences and to hear Members speak out for children and protecting the sanctity of childhood.

I have made my opposition to the holding of child beauty pageants in Ireland well known since the ultimately futile efforts by Universal Royalty to secure a hotel venue for a child pageant in September 2013. The campaign started from the floor of this House. Regrettably, albeit on a much smaller than anticipated scale, the event did go ahead in a beer garden in Castleblayney, County Monaghan, and Universal Royalty pageant organiser, Annette Hill, has reportedly confirmed her intention to host at least one more child beauty pageant in Ireland in the near future. This is why, with the support of my group, I have tabled the motion condemning the holding of child beauty pageants in Ireland.

We are old enough for long enough. I firmly believe that childhood is a time-specific and unique period in a person's development and that participation, for financial gain by others, in a competition by minors who are judged on attractiveness and physical attributes rather than any sort of discernible skill is seriously problematic and contrary to protecting childhood. I am not alone in the strength of my conviction in opposing child beauty pageants taking place here. I have already referred to the support from the House. In particular, I commend the transition year students in Mount Mercy College in Cork. They developed a transition year project, "Don't Let the Wrecking Ball Wreck You", a clever reference to Miley Cyrus's hyper-sexual music video and the negative impact of an increasingly sexualised pop culture on our young people. As part of the project they launched a petition on to help stop child beauty pageants being held in Cork. The students contacted me in the early stages of the project development and I was most impressed by their initiative, commitment and drive.

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, has also spoken out against child beauty pageants and communicated publically the harm it believes such pageants can inflict on the self-esteem and self-image of children. Children at Risk in Ireland, CARI, has also come out in support of the cause and I agree fully with them.

Negative body image, especially but not exclusively affecting women, starts early. I presume it starts as early as children and teens become cognisant of the relentless images of perfection we are all bombarded with through the media, advertising and popular culture and it can be very damaging. Negative body image can cripple people's confidence and prevent them from participating in sports and other activities with health benefits. There are numerous health risks associated with crash and fad diets and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, negative body image is linked to self-harm, anorexia, bulimia, depression, and anxiety. It is becoming a major problem throughout the world, so much so that in 2009 the Australian Government set up a national advisory body on body image to recommend initiatives to improve the body image of Australians. In Israel, where the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 years is anorexia, Photoshop laws have been introduced whereby any Photoshopped image must have a clear warning covering 7% of the surface area of the photo. The law there also requires that all models must have a body mass index of 18.5. In France, specialists involved in the research behind the parliamentary report, Against Hyper-Sexualisation: a New Fight for Equality, which is the report that prompted the French Senate to introduce a ban on child beauty pageants, concluded that precocious sexualisation affected mostly girls and caused psychological damage that is irreversible in 80% of cases.

I have had the displeasure of watching several televised child beauty pageants from the USA in the lead-up to this debate. I heard some frankly grotesque statements from so-called pageant moms. One said:

When I see Ronnie up on stage I can't believe she is only two. She did her sassy walk and really shook it. She also did her blow kisses.
Her mother went on to translate for us that "blow kisses" means "Hey judges, come get it, baby." She is two. I need not elaborate on why this is inappropriate behaviour for a two year old child. It became clear to me that the best personality prize is in fact the default prize for the children who did not win in the real categories of beauty, casual wear and swim wear. If it is obvious to me then it is obvious to everyone involved in pageantry, including the children. The suggestion is that those with the best personalities are the losers. This is not acceptable and it does not bode well for the development of well-rounded, grounded and confident children with strong internal value systems.

I emphasised the point earlier about beauty pageants not involving any discernible skill in an effort to distinguish child beauty pageants from Irish dancing, which was frequently drawn as a comparison when I was discussing the pageants in September last year. I did not know much about the Irish dancing world. My gut said that it was an unfair comparison since Irish dancing is rather technical and timing, rhythm and footwork are of the utmost importance. It takes years of practice and discipline to master these skills. However, as I have acknowledged in the motion, I am aware of the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents trying to navigate the world and make choices in the face of an increasingly sexualised and adult world. I tried to find out whether anything could be done to protect children from this in Irish dancing. I was pleased to learn from An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, the Irish Dancing Commission, that as of 1 March 2014, it has introduced new rules prohibiting the use of make-up, including false eye lashes, tinted moisturiser or any artificial tanning products for the face, for all dancers under ten years of age. Ten years of age seemed a low threshold to me initially but a representative from the commission explained that it would be virtually impossible to impose the rule on dancers worldwide beyond the age of ten years because they are competing in world championships, but I will continue to urge them to go further.

Also, the new rule is in addition to an existing rule that has been in place for many years which prohibits make-up for any dancer in the first two dancing grades, the Bungrad and Tusgrad and their equivalent, up to and including the 12-year age group worldwide. Let me give another example. The British Dance Council has introduced a strict requirement that costumes must be of one colour and without glitz so we can see that there have been moves in this direction.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has rightly stressed the importance of a right to play for children. A few years ago the Children's Rights Alliance consulted children before going to the UNCRC and the children put their right to play as the number one recommendation and priority to be raised with the UN committee.

It is clear to that this is an issue on which society is eager to stand united. Last September when I spoke against the pageants I received more telephone calls, emails and notes of support from the public than I have for any other issue that I have worked on. The issue is not about us being a nanny State; it is about collective social responsibility towards children.

Some people have asked whether I would consider bringing legislation but that would be a sledge hammer approach. The unanimous support that we got in the House is a strong call to action that we, as a society, have a responsibility. For me, tonight is a call to action not only to my colleagues here as I hope Dáil Éireann will pass a similar motion. It is a call to action for civil society organisations, parents, young people and society at large. We need to send a clear and unified message that there is no place in Ireland for child beauty pageants.

3:15 pm

Photo of Lorraine HigginsLorraine Higgins (Labour)
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I call Senator O'Donnell and she has six minutes.

Photo of Marie Louise O'DonnellMarie Louise O'Donnell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister and thank Senator van Turnhout for bringing this matter to the House.

In 1994, 20 years ago, a man called Neil Postman wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood. In the opening of his book he wrote:

As I write, twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls are amongst the highest-paid models in America. In advertisements in all the visual media, they are presented to the public in the guise of knowing and sexually enticing adults, entirely comfortable in the milieu of eroticism.
Little did he know then that would now be happening to five, six and seven-year olds. He continued:
This perception of children as miniature adults is reinforced by several trends besides criminal trends. For example, the increased level of sexual activity among children has been fairly well documented.
The media industry, the Internet industry, the music and video industry have played a huge and defining role in the drive to erase the differences between child and adult sexuality. Television in particular holds the entire population enthralled and in a condition of high sexual excitement but stresses, on a daily basis, the egalitarianism of sexual fulfilment regardless of age or profile. Sex is the greatest industry in the world and more lucrative than oil. It is available to everybody at any time at any place and is becoming ageless. It has now transformed from a private and profound adult mystery to a product that is available on shelves in a store like mouthwash or deodorant. Adult Language is used by children, adult profanity is used by children and filthy words are used by children. One can hear such words used comfortably and profusely even by children as young as six years old. It is a significant fact because it is another example of the erosion of the traditional distinction between children and adults. The media has been outstanding in producing a lowered state of language competence in the young. Homogeneity of style, food games and clothing removes the gap consistently between adults and children. Mum dresses like daughter and daughter dresses like mum so there is no age gap in children's clothing. Nine-year old boys wear three piece suits to birthday parties and 60-year old men wear jeans; nine-year old girls wear high heels and adults wear sneakers.

Senator van Turnhout was right and I agree with her that every child has a right to play. In the 18th century Rousseau wrote avidly about their right to play and that their natural environment should be free from contamination. Froebel and Maria Montessori following his ideas in the 19th century by saying that children learn naturally through play. It is the total sum of their selves and it is through play that their total identity becomes manifest but if we look at some city based primary schools - one of which my son attended - there is no place provided for children to play. Imagine the planning and the priorities that went into that situation and the insurance companies that benefit and feed off such a situation. At times our housing estates are no better.

Children's toys are now the instruments to push, propel, profit from and adultify children. Play has now been sabotaged by the intervention, direction and control of adults which is what beauty pageants are all about. They brainwash people and provide distilled examples of a belief that children are equal to adults when they can never be equal. Child beauty pageants see children as sophisticated consumers. They are the greatest example of a brilliant infiltration into children's natural play by adults for adults in order to make children part of or an extension of the adult world. They are adult play but they are not children's play. Children need to control their own space and not be confined to what adults understand and accept as sensual or sexy. It is another word for child labour that was outlawed in the 1830s. I can call such pageants child labour because they do not shelter children from adult corruption and how adults see and respond to the world or buy into how their world should be.

Child beauty pageants are adult controlled ways of shaping children and create social learning skills around adult anticipatory physical behaviour. They are also a contradiction of the word beauty because beauty is best described by Gerard Manley Hopkins who said that it is the possession of God who is "beauty's self and beauty's giver". Beauty is never tired or cliched or a semi-sexual attempt to look leery with a kind of jaded attention within an adult world through the use of make-up, clothes or hair and it is not pouting, pointing, leaning or looking lasciviously. All of this behaviour at child beauty pageants is very simply about the power and control of children's play which is organised, orientated and lived through by adults as part of their world. Beauty pageants are not a mode of expression. They are a mode of social and sexual control.

I started my contribution by quoting the great Neil Postman - who died too young - and will end with him because he said that the big question for all of us is what to do about the disappearance of childhood. He said: "I do know the answer. I say this with a mixture of relief and dejection. The relief comes from my not having the burden of instructing others on how to live their lives". I cannot answer either. My imaginative reach for solutions like Postman may not go farther than my grasp of the problem. His dejection came from the same source:

To have to stand and wait while the charm, malleability, innocence and curiosity of children are degraded and then transmogrified into the lesser features of pseudo-adulthood is painful and embarrassing and above all, sad.
I cannot prevent it but can only tell Senators why it occurs.

Child beauty pageants should be banned. Rousseau influenced the French Revolution so we should be influenced by the French nation and ban them. It is as simple as that.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the motion that has been tabled by Senator van Turnhout and other Senators. The Government and I are happy to support it. I have been struck by the points that have been made. Like Senator van Turnhout said about what happened when the matter was debated last year, I also got a very big reaction from people. Many people were horrified that child beauty pageants could happen in Ireland.

I welcome this complex motion as it offers an opportunity to examine an unexamined assumption in our lives - an assumption about childhood. First, we assume that childhood is a place or state that has always existed, more or less, in the way that it exists today. Second, we assume that childhood is a venerated and protected state across the world but neither is the case.

Without question, childhood is a reasonably recent artefact. Of course children were always children but a separate state - a discrete area constituting childhood - has existed for little more than 200 years in a severely limited geographical area. In most countries, for most periods, children were born and if they survived their first year - which was not probable - they speedily often became assistants to their working parents. The concept of childhood per se did not exist. Mothers took their babies into the fields with them. Paintings of royal families, down through the ages show the offspring of a King and Queen alongside their.parents but never as children. They were dressed, posed and painted as miniature adults and we have seen that portrayal very frequently. That portrayal was emblematic of how they were viewed, not just in those families but in many families. They were viewed as assets and heirs to be married off long before either of the two children involved was capable of a meaningful marriage. Those are some examples but there are many more.

3:25 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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There are many challenges in this area and there is much work to be done but we putting building blocks in place that will protect some of those vulnerable children that, undoubtedly, we still have in this country.

That statement of intent is based on an absolute acceptance of the proposition in the motion that "childhood, as a time-specific and unique period in a person's development, is a distinct space from adulthood." That is at the heart of the motion. It is also based on an appreciation of "the difficulties and pressures faced by children and parents as the distinct space between childhood and adulthood becomes increasingly blurred through media, advertising and popular culture." Senator Marie Louise O'Donnell has given us some really vivid examples about that decreasing space and the challenge of continuing to protect that childhood space as much as we can.

Parenting has always been hard for different reasons at different times. There is no question of that. John Millington Synge, the writer, recorded one kind of tragic parenting in his marvellous play, Riders to the Sea, where a mother lost her three sons and gives a poetic account of all her sons drowning, one by one. "They're all together now," she finally says, "and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me..." We would hope that no mother now would go through what that mother went through. Young deaths still happen and grieving is still hard. I think I can probably safely say that the concept of sexualisation of the young child was not one about which the mother in Synge's time had heard much. It was not a real concept for people in the early decades of the 20th century in relation to children. It is interesting to note how much that has changed because now the sexualisation of children, and discussions around it, is a very present concept and is really a dangerous form of theft from children.

There is growing concern that the space of childhood is shrinking. Once upon a time, children became teenagers. Now we have the "tween" culture.
Commercialisation and sexualisation work hand-in-hand, as has been said by both Senators, to shrink the space of childhood; downgrading the concept of childhood; promoting the attainment of premature adulthood; selling a dangerous allure; de-sensitising innocent minds, which is a very issue in our popular cultures today; steering them towards inappropriate, thoughts behaviours and untimely activity. Catapulting little girls and boys into a sexuality for which they are neither physically nor cognitively ready is a form of theft. It is the theft of childhood. For the theft of childhood, no form of restorative justice exists. Once stolen, it is gone forever. It leaves a great gaping hole that can never be fully filled or fully healed for those children.

On the question of the clothing that has been on sale in recent years for children that is inappropriate for their ages, it is not the same for adults and children. Clothes with suggestive slogans are not the same for adults and children. Overtly sexual cuts and styles are not the same for adults and children. Unreal or unbalanced portrayals of an ideal body-image are not the same for adults and children and people make many excuses when it comes to this issue. They say things such as: It was just a joke. No harm was meant. Little girls loved the clothes. Their mothers approved.

It is interesting the way retailers have changed in relation to this issue. When I extended an invitation to the Irish retail sector to respond to increasing concerns about the sexualisation of children's wear, Retail Ireland responded and, in fact, were leaders in this area, and brought forward Ireland's first ever guidelines on the responsible retailing of children's wear.

It is important to note that these guidelines are not just about restricting what retailers can sell. They provide constructive guidance on best practice on a range of issues such as styling, slogans, age-appropriateness, size, labelling and marketing. The code is playing an important and constructive role in informing future decision-making and ordering of the next season's clothes by retailers. For example, on the appropriateness of new and emerging fashion trends for children while further providing a framework within which retailers can responsibly consider and respond to growing concerns over body image among children.

Various retailers have been very happy to sign up to the guidelines. They include Arnotts, Brown Thomas, Clerys, Debenhams, House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer, Next, Pennys, Tesco and TK Maxx. Dunnes Stores is not a signatory but it has responded directly to me and indicated that it complies with best practice.

I am happy to report that the number of complaints regarding inappropriate childrenswear has fallen. However, I urge parents to continue to feedback any concerns or complaints about the issue. Retail Ireland is now working with the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium to draw up a unified strengthened text for the entire island which will be published in the summer. A North-South element is an important step.

In terms of the protection of children and of childhood, progress of this kind is very good. Voluntary progress is twice as good which is what the retailers have done and delivered. That is the culture of co-operation that we need to have if we are going to change this complex topic being discussed tonight.

It is often said that it takes a village to rear a child. If that is true then it falls to every stakeholder, as Senator van Turnhout has said, to contribute and discuss this culture and to make the best possible decisions. We all must play a role in protecting children and to protecting childhood from early sexualisation and undue gender stereotyping. We must be very vigilant in that regard.

In the context of what is being discussed here tonight, the early sexualisation, the destructive and inappropriate gender stereotyping where young children are asked to wear very inappropriate clothes and make-up. We have seen this happen in a variety of settings. I commend the Irish Dancing Commission for introducing additional rules prohibiting the use of make-up in the under-10 age groups. That is an important initiative which the Senator mentioned here tonight. Many people do a double-take when they see extremely talented young girls dance wearing make-up that is clearly inappropriate for very young children to wear. The fact that it is inappropriate has been recognised by the decision taken by the Irish Dancing Commission. It is also an example of voluntary progress and a culture of co-operation that is needed to protect children and safeguard them.

Senator O'Donnell referred to activities that demean children and situations where voluntary progress does not happen because money and notoriety goes along with certain activities. I agree with her that one of the activities is child beauty pageants. The idea of a child beauty pageant leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. It is the promotion of beauty pageants for financial gain by a contest where little children are judged and turned into winners and losers based not on skills that they have learned or an ability that they can prove but on how glammed up their parents can make them. We are talking about two, three, four and five-year olds. We are not talking about teenagers but under 10-year olds.

I believe and agree with Senator van Turnhout that this kind of pageantry runs counter to the values set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention might not have prevented hotels from hosting such pageants last year. Let us remember that many of the hotels were under great financial pressure. A contest like this, which involves hundreds of children and their parents and also provides lots of photo opportunities for publicity, must have been seriously tempting to many of them. The response of the hotels is encouraging and praiseworthy. Each of the hotels approached by Universal Royalty - the company that promoted the pageant last September - declined the opportunity to host the event. In the interests of children those hotels turned down the opportunity to make money. Those venues must be congratulated for doing so along with the Irish Hotels Federation for opposing child beauty pageants in Ireland. This is another example of voluntary progress and of the culture of co-operation needed. I hope that public opinion and the responsible position of many players will continue to play a role in ensuring that further attempts to hold such pageants are also dissuaded.

I want Ireland to be a cold house for child pageants but that does not always require legislation. Legislative proposals in France on banning pageants ran into difficulties in light of criticisms and legislative difficulties regarding the vagueness around the specifics of what types of events were addressed. I hope we will not have to go there in Ireland. I have asked the Department to examine options and to commission an international review of responses made by other countries to these issues in order to inform the Government's response and future actions. I can confirm that my Department has commissioned the Centre for Effective Studies to undertake the review this year - 2014 - which will build on another research project. At present, UCC is conducting a research project that was commissioned and funded by my Department through the scholarship programme of research. It is looking at data on the commercialisation and sexualisation of children in Ireland which is important research that will be published before the summer.

In conclusion, I thank Senator Van Turnhout for submitting the motion which I and the Government are happy to support. In standing together we are reinforcing the culture of co-operation. Similarly, we must all continue to foster co-operation in order to ensure society stands together which includes: parents, media, retailers, event organisers, businesses and many more players. We all stand together to protect children and safeguard the space of childhood.

3:35 pm

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I call Senator Power and she has six minutes.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I, too, welcome the motion and the fact that it has cross-party support. It is significant that the Minister has expressed her support for the motion.

The background of this matter has already been outlined. It relates to the decision last year to hold a beauty pageant here. Most of us were shocked and surprised that such an event could take place in Ireland. Thankfully, as was pointed out, most of the hotels turned down the event. The matter lead to us to consider what is acceptable for children from a child protection and child welfare point of view.

Child beauty pageants have been a feature in the US for quite some time. I have an American intern who works in my office. She has told me about bizarre television shows in the US where people parade their children and put make-up and false eyelashes on two, three, four, five and six-year old children. Such programmes makes the children household sensations but their fame is not based on individual talent but on their looks which is an horrendous concept. If these pageant competitions were allowed to happen here the outcome would be similar. Television shows and other events would be built around the sexualisation and exploitation of very young kids - a move that would be very damaging.

Let us look at the size of the industry in the States. A recent report has suggested that the modern child beauty pageant industry comprises 250 pageants that generate $20 billion annually. Also, rival families whose children contest the pageants often incur huge debts through spending up to $30,000 on competitions. Apart from the financial costs incurred by parents and families, Senator van Turnhout mentioned the personal cost and toll pageants take on the children involved. Pageants have an impact on their self-esteem, on their sense of self and on what is valued about themselves due to emphasis being placed on their body image, appearance, attractiveness to adults and adult concepts, sexual attraction and things like that. It is bizarre to even use the term "attractiveness" when referring to small children.

The Senator mentioned difficulties, including anorexia, which are consequences of putting such an emphasis on how children and young people look. We have seen reports from the United States of parents subjecting their little girls to botox treatment, facial threading, waxing, hair and nail extensions, and false teeth. I have been told that small children are regularly given false teeth to make them look perfect according to other people's views of what they should be like and what is attractive. The whole idea is repugnant.

I hope that change will come about due to the moral force of our argument and I agree with the Minister that we should not need to legislate in this area. Senator van Turnhout has addressed the matter as a sledge-hammer but I hope we will not have to do that. It would be daft and silly to do so. Most parents agree that this is ridiculous and, thankfully, the Irish Hotels Federation has said that beauty pageants are not acceptable for hotels. Most venues turned them down last year. At a time when businesses are under pressure, however, the worry is that some might feel they should avail of an opportunity to host such a big event but that would be disappointing.

The motion refers to Irish dancing but I had not seen such a competition for some years until I attended an event last year. I could not believe how much it had changed in terms of how the dancers present themselves. It was quite bizarre to see young girls dressed in short costumes with fake tans, false eyelashes and huge wigs. It took away from what is beautiful about Irish dancing, which is watching the footwork skills. The old fashioned costumes had a sense of Irishness but it was bizarre to watch people dancing in neon-pink and other colours that do not represent Irish traditions or culture for me.

I welcome the fact that new rules have been put in place by the Irish Dancing Commission to prohibit the use of make-up, including false eyelashes and artificial tans for dancers under the age of ten. I hope the commission will go further because I think it looks crap on anybody, whether they are ten or 20, to traipse out in ridiculous big wigs and plastered in fake tan. It takes away from what competitors should be judged on in Irish dancing, which is skill and not the superficial appearance of the dancers. I urge the commission to re-examine that age limit because ten is still quite young.

Last month, a former Irish dancer said she welcomed the rule changes, which will be a great relief to many parents and teachers. The problem hitherto was that nobody wanted their child to be the only one on stage who was not orange. People felt a need to comply even if they could see that it was bizarre and ridiculous. It is difficult for a child to be the odd one out. If everybody else is dolled up and wearing make-up, fake tan and the shortest possible skirt under the rules, a child will feel under pressure to conform.

The rules should be changed so that such competitions would be about beautiful Irish dancing, which is celebrated around the world when people watch Riverdance performances. The skill and speed of that show is so popular around the world, so we should get back to the beauty of Irish dancing here. I welcome the motion and commend Senator van Turnhout on the leadership she has shown on this matter over the past year. We should continue to push the issue because it would be a bad departure to head down the route of child pageants where children are judged on their looks.

3:45 pm

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and thank Senator van Turnhout and other Senators for putting this important motion before the House. My Fine Gael colleagues and I are delighted to support it. The Minister has stated that the Government as a whole also supports the motion. I am taking this matter on behalf of Senator Imelda Henry who is unavoidably absent.

I will begin with a quote from Dr. Maria Montessori who said:

Character formation cannot be taught. It comes from experience and not from explanation. The child builds his inmost self out of the deeply held impressions he [or she] receives.
What kind of impressions does a child receive from beauty pageants? They are not the kind of impressions we want our children to get. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell mentioned Wordsworth's poem The Rainbow.

Photo of Marie Louise O'DonnellMarie Louise O'Donnell (Independent)
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Gerard Manley Hopkins also wrote a poem of that name.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I know the mantra "The child is father of the man". Maria Montessori also said: "It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was." It is true that the experiences of childhood are brought through a person's life, but the impressions gained from beauty pageants are undesirable.

Development during childhood is so important. Ensuring healthy emotional and psychological development for children should be prioritised by parents, the State and all other stakeholders. The appointment of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has shown how seriously the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Government are taking the issue. Having a separate Department with responsibility for children has been mentioned throughout this debate.

The sexualisation of children has probably never been more pervasive than it is today with the advent of social media and widespread access to the Internet. Children are often exposed to online material that is unsuitable, which interferes with children's various stages of development.

The pageant business is the parents' own choice, however, so they cannot blame the Internet or anything else. Parents have a free choice to do this or not, but they should ask what it is doing to their children. That is the most important question any parent can ask.

Psychologists and development researchers have proposed a number of different theories to describe and explain processes and stages that children go through as they develop. Some psychologists tend to focus on development milestones or specific achievements, and others on specific aspects of child development such as personality, cognition and moral growth.

Many philosophers, including Piaget, Russo, Buckley, Montessori, Erikson and Freud have written about this matter. One small aspect concerns how we can develop and foster interpersonal relationships. The stage of moral development is focused on living up to social expectations and roles. Consideration must also be given to how choices influence relationships.

Psychologists have written about what pageants do as regards living up to social expectations and social roles. Parents have to make that choice. The child goes through a physical metamorphosis and should be allowed to develop naturally. Children do not need, and should not be exposed to, beauty pageants to make them look different. All stages of a child's development should be natural. Psychologists have outlined the various stages of such development but I will not go into them now.

The developments are sometimes so pronounced that one might think one was looking at a different child. In changing, children also go through a psychological metamorphosis in the way they learn to interpret the world. What this does to their psychological development has been written about in recent years.

Dr. Montessori used the example of the butterfly changing and growing beautiful naturally. We should let our children do the same. We must differentiate between acting, stage development, development of independence, confidence in partaking in events, and experiences that aid the development of independence and confidence.

I note that the Irish Dancing Commission has banned children from wearing wigs and fake tans. I welcome that. A child of mine won an all-Ireland Irish dancing competition in the years when there were no wigs or make-up. There was nothing other than talent, the preservation of culture and everything that goes with it. The three girls who won the three-handed reel in Irish dancing back then did not have wigs or make-up. Irish dancing should go back to what it was, which involves the preservation of Irish culture.

I hope that both organisations, the Irish Dancing Commission and An Comhdháil, have banned such things for children up to ten years of age. I could not contact An Comhdháil on the phone when I was trying to research the matter earlier, but I am sure it has done so.

We cannot equate Irish dancing and culture with beauty pageants. I would not like them to get mixed up, but parents have to make that choice. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is doing a lot, as is the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who will be introducing the sexual offences Bill later this year. I also wish to compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the steps she has taken to curb retailing in this regard.

Evidence suggests that allowing children to compete in beauty pageants is damaging to their health and emotions. Dr. Syd Brown, a child and adolescent psychologist in the USA, affirms: "Not only do children who compete in pageants measure their self-worth by their looks, they are in for a downfall if they do not stay as beautiful when they grow up."

Many children who compete in beauty pageants and who focus on their looks, are liable to develop emotional problems.

Dr. Maria Cartwright, adjunct professor of nutritional science at the University of Arizona, has stated it is not uncommon for teenagers who compete in beauty pageants at very young ages to have eating disorders, a point raised by Senator van Turnhout. While I do not want to scare parents who are going to partake in beauty pageants, and as Senator van Turnhout said, it is not illegal and is a free choice, nonetheless, we should stress that free choice and exploitation are two different things. Free choice is one of the highest of all mental processes. Young children do not differentiate and parents should be educated on how, when and where children can participate. They should ask whether their child has developed the power of control, the power to say "No" and the power to differentiate between exploitation and free choice.

3:55 pm

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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The Senator should conclude.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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It is such an important issue we could go on forever talking about it. Hopefully, people will listen.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I commend Senator van Turnhout for putting down this motion and welcome the Minister's strong speech on its behalf. I believe we are all at one on this, and certainly all five of the University Senators were honoured to sign the motion when Senator van Turnhout brought it to us.

We have heard all about negative body image being promoted among people who lose in these competitions, as well as about the sexual exploitation of children and the exploitation of children through clothing, make-up and so on, as the Minister has described. Our stand this evening is very important and welcome. It echoes a proud tradition because, when children were being abused and beaten in schools, two Senators, John Boland and Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, were to the fore in opposing that abuse of children. Too many people in Irish society looked the other way when there were the child abuse scandals that we are now investigating, and about which we are finding out the dreadful things that happened. That is not happening here this evening. A matter has been brought to our attention by Senator van Turnhout and the Minister, and we have reacted in exactly the right way. That is a good night for Seanad Éireann and for young children.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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I would like to thank all of the previous speakers for what have been excellent and thoughtful speeches. In particular, I congratulate the Minister on her speech. She has brought this debate to another level in looking more specifically at the whole issue of childhood and how it has evolved in the wider society to a point where we now believe and feel we need to protect children and give them a value.

While I do not want to repeat much of what has been said in the debate, I will make a couple of points. Historically, when we look at, for example, the portrayal of children and childhood, an awful lot of what was at stake was the issue of poverty. For example, when children were down in the mines and in the factories, there were many commissions, particularly in the UK, on whether or not the practice should be outlawed. On a number of occasions, outlawing the practice was not successful because the family needed the work of the child, and the argument was made that only the small hands of children, for example, could be put into the looms. There is a real issue about the value of childhood and poverty. The Minister referred to issues of the recognition of childhood in the Victorian era. For example, Queen Victoria herself was perceived as being a mother figure, yet we all know her treatment of her own children left a lot to be desired. The reality is it was an era where children were owned by their parents and were the possessions of their parents. Short of killing them in extreme circumstances, there was really nothing a parent could not do to a child.

I was struck by what the Minister said about the role of parents in this context and their responsibility for childhood. I was very struck when she mentioned the fact that, because of child mortality, for example, parents could not afford to care for their children. In a book I read many years ago, Aristocrats, one of the characters was a member of the family that owned Leinster House, the FitzGerald family. It was very clear it was a very difficult issue in that a parent could not really emotionally care for a child before they reached a certain age because there was no guarantee the child would survive.

We have all signed this motion so perhaps the issue of beauty pageants is beyond debate on one level. However, I want to raise the issue of the exercise by children of their free choice. Children are controlled by parents. I have always been very uncomfortable with the idea, for the sake of argument, of children swimming competitively or playing piano competitively at the age of five, six, seven or eight, where they are practising for four, five or six hours a day. That is what we are talking about here - about competition and being the best. To what extent do we try to ensure that children are genuinely exercising free choice when they are engaging in any form of competition, whether it be competition based on their looks, their ability to play a piano, their ability to swim or any other form of competition? We have to be very careful about that.

In regard to child pageants, again we come back to the issue of poverty. From the research I have done on child pageants, principally those in the United States, I believe the vast majority of people involved would not generally be what one would call middle class. I believe there is an issue about poverty, about resources and about education when it comes to issues such as child beauty pageants. I believe, as the motion states, that childhood is time-specific and unique, and we need to be very careful that we allow children that space, and that they exercise their free choice in any area of life, whether that be competition around their looks or any other form of competition.

I congratulate my colleague, Senator van Turnhout, for bringing this motion forward and for her personal stance last September. I also congratulate the hotels that turned down this beauty pageant. We live in tough times and this is a matter of resources, so fair do's to them. We have a moral duty to children and we have a responsibility to protect them. We are the grown-ups - it is a simple equation. I understand that many parents are justly proud that their children are beautiful and they believe they are the most beautiful in the world. However, we need to be clear what we are talking about. It is about competition. We are also very much in the frame where we are putting a premium on youth, and not just youth but younger and younger youth in an aging world. We live in a society where people are living longer - an aging society - yet this premium on youth is a dangerous thing and is not something that should be promoted in any shape or form.

A child beauty pageant is no better than a dog show, in my opinion. It is exactly the same principle. By its very nature, it should not be allowed. It is positively illegal, in my opinion, and should not be happening. I have no issue whatsoever with the idea of outlawing it full stop. We should not even be debating it. As mentioned, the French Senate has made it a criminal offence for anyone under the age of 16 to be entered into such competitions. The organisers of these competitions should also face criminalisation. We have to bear in mind that this is the exploitation of children for the titillation of adults, and there is no other way to put it. I would perhaps go further than the motion has done and say, to be perfectly frank, it is a matter that should be subject to legislation and it should be outlawed.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I commend Senator van Turnhout for highlighting this issue. I believe the Minister will find it rather difficult in so far as legislation is concerned. It is not quite as simple as that. It is easy to ban the pageants and it is obvious they involve the exploitation of young people, with false make-up and so on. It would certainly discourage this competition coming back here again. However, we have to bear in mind the question of beautiful baby competitions at a rural show, for example.

That is common practice, but it can be very hurtful to the parents of the babies who are not deemed the most beautiful. In fact, all babies are beautiful. We are talking about infants being paraded in front of judges who decide that one of them is better looking than all the others. Where does one draw the line with this type of thing? We have to work it out carefully and the Minister has a responsibility to look at the overall situation.

4:05 pm

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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The line I would draw would exclude beautiful baby competitions.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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That is fair enough. I assure the Senator that I never entered any of my children in one of those competitions. My own daughters enjoyed participating in Irish dancing competitions. I recall the green skirts and simple white blouses they wore, with no make-up or any of that. They went along to dance and enjoy themselves, not for the competition as such. They received good training and learned skills such as poise. It was all very healthy. The competitions were well organised and there was very little upset. It was easy to see who the good dancers were.

As I said, where does one draw the line? The French have banned children aged under 16 from participating in beauty pageants; the legislation is quite severe in this regard. My view is that it is largely a question of giving guidance. Shirley Temple is regarded as the greatest child actor of all time and she never wore much make-up, or did not appear to in any case. There was no false hair and so on. She was well presented and a great actress. Perhaps she was exploited - I cannot say - but she certainly became a very fine adult and a representative of the United Nations. That is one example of somebody who was not affected by the trappings of child fame.

Modern child beauty pageants are another matter. The event that took place in a pub garden in this country last year was reported in the Irish Independent as follows, "A six-year old girl wearing a green bikini and dancing to Feeling Hot Hot Hot drew sharp intakes from breath from a crowd filled with novice Irish contestants at Ireland's first Universal Royalty children's beauty pageant that took place in a 'secret' location today." In fact, it was held in Corrigan's Kitchen in Castleblayney, County Monaghan. The report went on, "Competitors aged from 18 months to 14 years dressed in everything from bikinis to ballgowns competed in beauty, talent and Irish theme-wear rounds."

Exploitation of children in this manner is unacceptable and this type of event should not be encouraged. On the contrary, we would discourage parents from getting involved. This debate is helpful because parents will react to the coverage of it and, we would hope, be less likely to participate in such events. The all-party support for the motion is very welcome. I am sure the Minister will take on board all the points raised and give the issue the consideration it deserves. As I said, there is a broader picture at play here and the question to consider is where we should draw the line.

The Irish Dancing Commission has brought forward new rules in regard to costumes and so on, which is welcome. Another speaker suggested that false hair is now prohibited, but I do not believe that is case. It certainly is surprising if it has not been banned, because wigs have nothing to do with the quality of the dancing. I do not understand why the commission did not go a little further in this regard. Another issue is how one differentiates between false tans and "real" tans. How is it possible to tell the difference between a cosmetic tan and a tan that was attained through sunbathing or, even worse, in a tanning salon? The Irish dancing sector has generally conducted itself in an admirable way and there is no question of its right to have dancing competitions. It is a great tradition.

I agree with Senator Hayden about the beautiful baby competitions because they can cause a great deal of hurt. I never did and never would judge one. There is no logic in submitting infants to that type of judgment when they are all, in their parents' eyes, the most beautiful babies in the world. How can one judge babies against each other? It is not very logical but has been happening in shows around Ireland for a long time. Incidentally, I have also heard of beautiful granny competitions, but that is another matter.

I support the motion and welcome the opportunity it affords for a mature debate. I am not sure, however, whether legislation is the way we should go. There is minimal interest in child beauty pageants in this country and there should be even less after this debate. Legislation in this area would be very difficult to enforce. I do not like the idea of gardaí arriving at an event and arresting parents and organisers and taking them to court. There are enough problems in this country. Having said that, it is well worth highlighting this issue. We must lead by moral example in advising parents, as Mrs. Worthington was advised, not to put their daughters on the stage.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I am pleased to support this motion by Senator Jillian van Turnhout and her Independent colleagues. I speak tonight not just as a Senator but as a father of four and a grandfather of three. I have two beautiful granddaughters, one aged five and the other who turns two today. They are absolutely gorgeous and when I see them traipsing around the house wearing my wife's or my daughter's high-heeled shoes or trying to put make-up all over their faces, I smile at their innocence and beauty.

On the other hand, I am appalled when I see the sexualisation of children through the medium of child beauty pageants. The very idea of dressing an innocent child in sexed-up clothing, high heels, make-up, hair extensions, fake tan and even false teeth to hide their own children's teeth, is wrong. It is disgusting. I often question what our society is coming to and if we have lost the wonderful childhood world of innocence that children are supposed to enjoy as they grow up. Is there not enough pressure on children, particularly teenagers, through sexed-up MTV videos, the various reality television shows and the cyberbullying we know is happening? Television nowadays encourages children to become superstars without going through the necessary work, whether on the stage or in any other walk of life.

Parents who put their children in pageants need to ask themselves why they are depriving those children of a normal childhood. They should ask themselves whether they are exploiting their child for their own benefit. Or are they trying to relive their lives through their children? Senator Hayden mentioned that it is all about competition these days, whether competition in sports or something else. Of course, competition is entirely natural for human beings.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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However, five year old children do not look in the mirror and decide they are more beautiful than their school friends and they should compete with them on that basis. It is the parents exploiting their children who create that competitiveness.

Research tells us that there are several components to sexualisation which set it apart from a healthy sexuality. Sexualisation occurs when a person's self-esteem comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics. A report by the American Psychological Association states that a sexuality which is imposed on somebody rather than being undertaken by choice is evidence of sexualisation. Here in Ireland, legal adulthood and the ability to give consent is set at 17 years of age. In the case of child beauty pageants, however, the children's consenting parents permit them to participate, pay their entry fees, dress them up, train them and allow them to perform on stage in front of judges and an audience. Who are these parents trying to appease? Certainly not normal people. Are they trying to gratify their own egos or do they really believe there is a benefit for their children?

If so, I disagree because the people they are trying to appease are paedophiles, the very people from whom we are trying to protect our children.

Worldwide, the children's pageant industry is worth billions of dollars. Television networks air on-demand shows such as "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Little Miss Perfect". The viewership figures for these programmes imply that many adults not only condone these activities but also view children as sexual objects. We must protect our children.

As the Taoiseach stated, we want Ireland to be the best small country in the world in which to do business. We also want Ireland to be the best small country in the world in which to raise children. We must not condone the activities taking place in child pageants. Ireland should adopt the guidelines introduced in France to protect the innocence of childhood. Healthier activities and hobbies should be promoted and we should encourage greater participation in older games, physical activities and sports. I thank the Minister and congratulate Senator van Turnhout on raising this issue in the House.

4:15 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis an Aire as ucht a bheith anseo le haghaidh na díospóireachta tábhachtach seo. Tá an-áthas a bheith anseo ag tacú leis an rún thar a bheith tábhachtach. Molaim an Seanadóir van Turnhout agus na Seanadóirí ar fad atá tar éis tacú leis.

Sinn Féin supports the motion calling for a ban on child beauty pageants. These events, which have their origins in the United States, have evolved to the point where they can be considered to be a very worrying form of child exploitation, if not downright abuse. The first Little Miss America pageant was staged in the 1960s and has developed into an industry that generates €20 billion annually. The lady responsible for the first Irish child beauty pageant in 2013, Annette Williams of the Universal Royalty Beauty pageant, has described her pageants as being a fun, family time and stated they allow contestants to develop individuality, capability, poise and confidence.

There are valid reasons for all of us to be concerned about child pageant competitions as they raise serious issues related to the early sexualisation of very young girls. Dressing young girls in provocative and revealing clothing and altering their appearance with make-up, wigs and jewellery blurs the line between childhood and adulthood and turns children into miniature versions of adult women. The key issue is that adult women have agency. In other words, while there is much that is problematic about the fashion and beauty industry and the pressure to conform it brings to bear on men and especially women, adults are none the less free to make informed decisions. Children, on the other hand, have not yet reached a stage of emotional, intellectual or developmental maturity that allows them to make such decisions. The premature emphasis on appearance for small girls may be detrimental to their long-term mental well-being and development. For example, we know that an excessive emphasis on appearance is not good, even among adults, as it can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem, a skewed view of one's worth as a human being and a distorted value system.

On child beauty pageants, David Carey states that "as a psychologist with an interest in children's development, I think over-emphasis on beauty and feminisation is counter-productive to the development of a girl's ability to integrate into society as a whole person rather than an object of beauty." A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association asserted that pageants teach young girls to see themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.

We know that very young girls have a heightened awareness of body issues, to the extent that the British Journal of Psychology recently reported that half of all six year old children believe they are fat and half have been on a diet by the age of nine. The biggest wish of girls aged between 11 and 17 years is to be thinner. Not long ago, the idea of children being on diets and concerned about body image and looks would have bordered on the bizarre. There is little doubt that the very notion of childhood and what it means to be a child have changed dramatically over a short period.

In a society that places so much importance on physical attractiveness, girls internalise the message that looks and appearance are more important than virtually everything else. They are more important than being a good camogie player or fast runner or being kind and compassionate, funny or a good story teller. As responsible adults and legislators, we have a duty to do everything in our power to reverse this state of affairs. We must send a clear and strong message that our children are valuable in and of themselves. Childhood is not for sale to the fashion and cosmetics industries or unscrupulous adults with dubious intentions. Dressing children up in adult make-up and clothes robs them of their childhood and the time to grow and evolve, at their own pace, into caring and decent adults. As we all know, beauty is skin deep and not a prerequisite for a happy or well-lived life.

Sinn Féin is pleased to support the motion. We endorse the values and aspirations set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Táimid an-sásta go bhfuil tacaíocht leathan ag an ráiteas seo agus ag an díospóireacht anseo um thráthnóna sa Seanad. Táimid thar a bheith sásta tacú leis.

Photo of Mary Ann O'BrienMary Ann O'Brien (Independent)
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I salute Senator Jillian van Turnhout for her brilliance in introducing this all-party motion. I thank the Minister, Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell and all the previous speakers for their contributions to the debate. I could not agree more with them. The objectification of children is a disturbing subject and child beauty pageants objectify children. Childhood is the most precious time in life. I am not certain if the legislation to which Senator Eamonn Coghlan referred was passed in France. The Minister stated she was not prepared to go as far as France as gone. I ask her to consider the introduction of legislation on this issue.

I do not agree with the comment that parents have freedom of choice in his matter. The job of parents is to protect the innocence of their children and help them grow from childhood to adulthood. It is not their job to bring them to pageants. I also disagree with Senator Hayden's comment that pageants are similar to dog shows. While I hate dog and puppy shows, dogs do not return from a show with low self-esteem or body image issues or wondering whether they are good enough, nor do dogs acquire eating disorders. Unlike dogs, children are conscious human beings with incredible intelligence. It is wrong to make them wear padded bras and high heels or apply fake tan and dreadful make-up.

I have here a paper from Professor Martina Cartright who has done a thesis on child beauty pageants in the United States. She make the interesting point that adults are driven primarily by the social or financial gains earned by their children's accomplishment, regardless of the risk involved for the child. She estimates that the industry is worth €5 billion in the United States alone. Professor Cartright refers to "achievement by proxy distortion", a new concept to me, which occurs when parents struggle to differentiate between their need and their child's need in order to make themselves feel good and successful. They may engage in risky behaviours, objectification or activities that may harm their child, all of which the researcher witnessed at the pageants she attended. Professor Cartright believes that the emphasis on physical perfection may put young girls at risk of adult body dissatisfaction and potential eating disorders. She also expresses concern that beauty competitions sexualise young girls by encouraging them to look like grown-ups. She recalled, in particular, a young contestant wearing a Playboy bunny costume being carried on to the stage by her father dressed as Hugh Hefner. I find it difficult to say that in the Chamber. Children who win competitions are frequently fed high energy drinks and sweets with a high sugar content, known as "pageant crack", to keep them awake for the crowning ceremony. Need I say more? Professor Cartright has produced a very interesting paper.

On the wider issue of the sexualisation of children, some of the children's clothes being sold by retailers are getting worse every year as stores make more and more money from them. Parents are faced with pester power where children demand certain clothes because their school friends have them. While I do not know what is the solution to this problem, we must start to address it by educating parents.

With International Women's Day approaching, people are discussing the issue of gender. I had coffee earlier in the House with a young, single solicitor. She expressed concern that her younger sisters are beginning to dress more and more inappropriately to feel attractive and good about themselves. We must be careful because we are taking a backward step.

Senator van Turnhout and I feel the same way about a particular matter, namely, educating parents about giving their children smartphones or tablets. Again, it is a case that children must have these devices and essentially we are handing them toys which are lethal weapons. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, is running a consultation process on appropriate Internet content at present. The report relating to that process will be published in May and I am of the view that we should engage in a debate on it at that point. That is another problem outside of pageants. We need to find a way to control the amount of inappropriate information that is available on the Internet. Children have easy access to such information.

4:25 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I echo the sentiments expressed by Senators on all sides and I applaud Senator van Turnhout on the initiative she has taken in respect of this matter. I welcome the Minister and the comments she made. I congratulate her on the initiative she took prior to Christmas in respect of Retail Ireland. I presume this initiative is similar to the website in the UK, which goes by the tagline "by parents for parents". started a "Let Girls be Girls" campaign in the UK in early 2010 which "grew from Mumsnetters' concern that an increasingly sexualised culture was dripping, toxically, into the lives of children". It is stated on that:

The campaign aims to curb the premature sexualisation of children by asking retailers to commit not to sell products which play upon, emphasise or exploit their sexuality. Earlier this year, the campaign was extended to tackle lads' mags, calling on newsagents and supermarkets not to display them in children's sight.
I am not sure whether the latter forms part of the Minister's initiative or whether the focus is just on clothes. Perhaps it is something which might be borne in mind.

A number of statements on reflect what Senator Mary Anne O'Brien said. For example, one lady, Justine, said the following:

This is not about prudishness or hankering after some rose-tinted picture of childhood. It's about millions of parents - and many who aren't parents - knowing in their bones that there is something wrong with a society that tries to sell seven year old girls 4 inch heels, or t shirts emblazoned with "future porn star".
As parents we're told - often by our own kids - that we've just got to live with it, that the world has changed. But we don't have to - and our Let Girls be Girls campaign, the Bailey review [which was carried out in the UK and to which I will refer later] and the new retail code of conduct show the power ordinary people can wield when they speak out forcefully on forums like Mumsnet against the pornification of our culture.
Parent power really lies at the heart of this matter. One American psychologist is on record as stating that if parents did not go into stores and buy these types of products, there would be no market for them and if there is no market, there can be no product. Parents have a responsibility in respect of this matter and they cannot merely expect the Government or the Minister to act on their behalf. Responsibility begins at home with parents. Senator Mary Anne O'Brien is quite right to state that in America, where a subculture relating to this exists, many of the instances are of a proxy nature and involve parents. One particularly gruesome instance in recent years involved an eight year old in San Francisco whose mother had wanted to be a beauty pageant queen but had failed in her quest. She channelled all of her frustrated ambition in the direction of her child and even gave her botox injections. I am glad that San Francisco's social services department took the child into care. In my opinion, that parent should not have been anywhere near a child. There are many similar instances.

There is a website in the US, Toddlers & Tiaras, which is about the beauty pageant business and which the Minister should visit. There is a section on the website which is devoted to showing excerpts of the ten worst or most gross things which happened on the reality TV show of the same name. I was struck not by the exploitation of these children - some of whom were no more than two years of age and others of whom were still only babes in arms - and their being dressed up but rather by the reaction of their parents. I refer to their whooping and shouting "Good on you" and "Doesn't she look so beautiful". I thought, "What a sick society". Perhaps that to which I refer would be replicated here if we allowed it. When one of these pageants was run in Ireland last year, parents actually turned up to it with their children. One can blame the organisers and shout and roar about the hotel involved but the bottom line is that Irish parents attended the pageant with their daughters. These were not Americans, some of whom are mad. What a strange society obtains in America, particularly in the context of the number of subcultures that exist within it. We have a similar society here, albeit it on a far smaller scale.

If we, as legislators, the Minister or the Government can do anything about this matter, then our focus should be on the responsibility of parents. This matter should not be thrown back to the Government in order that it might legislate in respect of it. In that context, it should not be necessary to legislate.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh and I must have come across the same material when carrying out our research on this matter. The Senator referred to a 2007 study compiled by the American Psychological Association. I also wish to place on record something which that organisation noted, namely, that "sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and attitudes and beliefs". The study also found that some of the possible ongoing negative effects include "low self esteem, poor academic performance, depression, and eating disorders such as anorexia". A study carried out in 2008 by Girlguiding UK and the Mental Health Foundation found that premature sexualisation and pressure to grow up too quickly are two "key influences" in the anxiety felt by girls. According to Dr. Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, "Girls and young women are being forced to grow up at an unnatural pace in a society that we, as adults, have created and it's damaging their emotional well-being ... We are creating a generation under stress." The current generation of adults has created this society or it has at least watched as it has developed.

I accept that the Minister may be fully aware of them but I take this opportunity to place on record some of the recommendations contained in the Bailey review. It is stated on that:

The Review makes further recommendations about the exposure of children to sexualised imagery. It proposes that explicit ads, music videos and TV programmes - described as a "wallpaper of sexual images that surround children" [that is a pretty apt way of putting it and one can even create from it one's own mental image] should be subject to tighter control, with age-ratings on music videos, and stricter enforcement of the television watershed.
It recommends that outdoor advertising featuring sexual imagery should not be displayed in areas near schools or playgrounds, and that parents should have a one-stop portal to enable them to complain about products, ads or services more easily. The review also proposes that internet users should have to make "an active choice over whether they allow adult content or not". I agree that people who use the Internet should be obliged to make that choice. If that happens, then perhaps those involved will stop and think.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister. I echo the many tributes paid to Senator van Turnhout in the context of her tabling of this motion. When she e-mailed Senators last week, I replied immediately because this is a matter about which I, as a parent, feel strongly. I have found it purely sickening to listen to some aspects of this debate, particularly in the context of children being exploited. We often discuss child abuse and unfit parents. In my view, those who subject their children to pageants such as that held last September are guilty of child abuse. They are taking away the childhood innocence of their offspring.

The motion states that childhood is a time-specific and unique period in a person's development and that there is a distinct space between it and adulthood. That issue lies at the heart of the motion. There is a veritable laundry list of events and occurrences which can tarnish or ruin a person's childhood. Senator Mooney made a very valid point, namely, that it is the duty of parents - first and foremost - to look after their children.

I refer to the iconic figure of Katie Taylor. My memory still allows me to go back many years to when I was young. We could not wait to get on the hurling field or the Gaelic football field. In many ways we learned so much from playing sport. It was healthy physical exercise but it also promoted mental well-being and taught us teamwork and how to interact with our peers. It gave us values and experiences to last all our lives and which served us very well.

Parents face challenges, as has been said by previous speakers. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien and Senator Mary Moran specifically emphasised this point. It is shocking to see the material on the Internet to which children are exposed. I read an appalling story yesterday of a 12 year-old boy who raped his seven year-old sister following his viewing of pornography in the company of some of his friends. I think this happened in the United States. That is an appalling situation and it shows that we need to get to grips with the Internet. While it is a medium for great good, it is deficient in many ways.

Pageants are not the only issues that need to be examined with regard to the sexualisation of children. Like many people I followed the controversy surrounding Federal Law No. 135-FZ introduced in Russia. It was designed to protect young people from any form of sexualisation. Stephen Fry took control of it and it was used very strongly against Russia. I have read the Russian Act. All it does is to build on an existing law in order to protect children against any form of exploitation or anything that would affect them. I can provide more information on the topic to anyone interested.

I am pleased this motion has cross-party support. I suggest that the House should table a cross-party motion on what I consider to be most demeaning of the status of women - gendercide. It is practised in many countries. It has happened in Britain and in the United States. Nothing abrogates the campaign for women's equality more than gendercide. This may be a challenging view for those who regard themselves as liberals but it is a fundamental issue. If we are genuinely serious about such issues, this House has a good role to play in tabling a motion to which all sides of the House could subscribe.

4:35 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald to the House. I commend Senator van Turnhout and her colleagues for putting forward this important motion which has produced an excellent debate. I am very happy to support the motion and to line up with everyone else in the House in support of it. We are united on this issue. The Minister has spoken eloquently about the culture of co-operation which is such an important part of making Ireland a cold house, as she described it, for this sort of child beauty pageant. Even that phrase, "beauty pageant", is hard to say because it sounds completely wrong to be speaking about children in the context of beauty pageants. We are all united on this motion which is in keeping with the notion of human rights for children. We united in support of the children referendum to amend the Constitution to insert recognition of rights for children, so too, we should unite on this motion. This debate shows the Seanad at its best.

Other speakers have spoken at length of the context and we are all conscious of the company from Texas which sought to run these pageants in Ireland. When I carried out a search of the media reports I noted that as recently as January the company was still saying it plans to run a pageant. It has not given up, although last November it said it would have a pageant at Christmas but this may have been a publicity spin.

Senator van Turnhout spoke about the high level of public support she has received for her stance. In her view, legislation might not be the appropriate manner to deal with this issue, that a legislative ban might not be appropriate. This is an important point. The Minister spoke about the difficulty with the legislative proposal in France which did not pass in all Houses of the French Parliament because of the real difficulty about how to define what is being banned. We would have the same difficulty. We all know what we mean by child beauty pageants and the Texan company falls squarely within that category but there might well be other events or companies seeking to fall outside of a definition through clever means. If we can proceed with the sort of great public support for these pageants not to be held in Ireland, if we can proceed on the basis that hotels will not welcome the business and if we can proceed with the rulings from Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, this might be a better way forward. However, I welcome the Minister's announcement that she has commissioned research on this matter because it would be helpful to know how other countries have dealt with it and how they have approached the expression of the condemnation of these pageants.

Like other speakers I commend the Irish Hotels Federation and the hotels which refused to host the events last year. I also commend the An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha for the ruling on the use of make up. I share Senator Moran's view that ten years of age seems very young. I contacted the commission and it has explained the rationale. The ruling makes a significant difference. It also pointed out to me that a number of CLRG feiseanna on both sides of the Atlantic were held last weekend, just after the ruling came into effect, and the motion was fully adhered to. This demonstrates the effectiveness of this type of voluntary approach.

I refer to two broader themes which have been raised during the debate. Senator van Turnhout, and the Minister alluded to the first theme, as did Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell who spoke very eloquently about the disappearance of childhood. The Minister also spoke about the theft of childhood. All of us share a concern about the increasing sexualisation of childhood, the pseudo-adulthood, as Senator O'Donnell described it. We are very conscious of campaigns in England to prevent inappropriate use of logos and clothing styles for children. The Minister spoke about Retail Ireland's very welcome guidelines which are voluntary but very effective. I have a copy of the children's wear guidelines which are admirable, instructing that slogans and imagery on clothing must be age-appropriate, not sexually suggestive, not demeaning, derogative or containing political slogans or images that could be interpreted as such, that slogans deemed humorous should be tested and careful consideration should be given to what could be described as gender-specific slogans. I refer to the campaign about overly-gendered toys and clothes. On a lighter note, I refer to the young girl in England who wrote to Lego saying that she no longer wanted it to market the style of Lego friends and Lego for girls. My own daughters are big fans of "Star Wars" Lego which is gender-neutral. These campaigns are in keeping with the general theme of bringing childhood to an end too quickly.

As the Minister stated, childhood has only relatively recently been extended to age 18. The Constitutional Convention heard a powerful argument from a social worker who spoke against lowering the voting age to 16. His argument was that the social work profession and many others had fought very hard in recent decades to ensure that 18 years would become the age of adulthood and that childhood was not ended prematurely in any legal sense. I have recently written to the Minister for Justice and Equality to ask for a change in the current law which allows a legal marriage to be contracted at the age of 16 in certain circumstances. The legal age at which people should be allowed to marry should be 18 years as a minimum. We should not continue to allow the loophole that allows for marriage at 16 years. The provision is ripe for exploitation. I refer to a well-publicised recent High Court case in which the judge expressed concern about this exemption in the law whereby marriage can be legally contracted at 16 years.

The motion also raises issues about the treatment of girls in particular. The Irish Family Planning Association and the all-party Oireachtas group on reproductive health are hosting an exhibition which shows graphically in visual form the terrible oppression of women and young girls that still happens in many developing countries around the world, through practices such as female genital mutilation. It is appropriate during international women's week to remember that broader context for this motion. This very distasteful child beauty pageant is but one expression of oppression and discrimination against girls which means that girls have much less likelihood of access to education, to work and health rights, as their male counterparts.

It is a timely motion and I am delighted to support it.

4:45 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I thank everyone wholeheartedly. I thank the Minister for her input and for participating so actively in the debate. I thank my Independent colleagues for giving up our group's time for this motion. It shows their strength of feeling. In particular, I thank Senator O'Donnell, who seconded the motion.

It is unique to see unanimous support in the Seanad. It is heartening and empowering that, despite our ideological differences, we are able to stand together, speak out for children and protect the sanctity of childhood. As Senator Barrett stated, we are as one.

It is important to remember the right to play under Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Play is a core foundation block of childhood. Senator O'Donnell stated articulately that child beauty pageants were adult play, not child play. She also referred to power and control over children's play. The Minister's statement that, once stolen, childhood is gone forever is true.

Senator Bacik added information to the debate on Irish dancing. When I first heard about the make-up ban for children aged under ten years, I was a bit dubious, but it is a major step forward. This worldwide movement will make a significant difference. An Comhdháil has in place a similar ban to the Irish Dancing Commission's for the bun and tús grades of 12 years and under. This covers tanning, tinted moisturiser, make-up and false eyelashes. However, it has not banned wigs. I can partly understand. Little girls would be sleeping for the night wearing rollers, whereas a wig is something that can be put on and off. Perhaps we could debate that, but the commission is taking steps in the right direction. These changes are heartening.

It is important to note that one cannot compare a competition such as, for example, playing the piano with child beauty pageants. They are totally different and it is a spurious comparison, as Senator O'Donnell stated. One is a skill, art form or expression whereas the other is sexual, sensual and leering at a young age. There is no discernible skill in child beauty pageants. They are problematic and contrary to the protection of childhood. As we approach International Women's Day, these beauty pageants are a step backwards in our battle for equality.

Several people have referred to France. The law there is progressing, but it has evolved in way that has revealed the difficulties. France is now discussing 13 year olds and younger and reducing the proposed fine. The matter returns to the French Senate on 17 April. I hope that an Irish law is not necessary, but if it is, we have unanimous support in the Seanad and we will lead the charge. I hope that common sense prevails.

The research that the Minister announced is welcome. We will be armed and ready. I hope that our debate sends out a clear message. We have unanimous support. This is a call to action. I hope that the Dáil will pass a similar motion so that we can show that both Houses are as one.

The board of the Irish Hotels Federation has passed a motion to oppose child beauty pageants. The hotels turned away business. I call on parents and the general public to tell their local hotels that they do not support child beauty pageants. People must be firm in their resolve.

The Minister referred to guidelines on the responsible retailing of children's wear. If people have complaints, they should make them. We all have a role to play in protecting childhood.

I offer my heartened thanks. We are as one. Tonight, we have sent a clear, strong and unified message to the effect that there is no place in Ireland for child beauty pageants.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister wish to respond for two or three minutes?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity. My response should be self-evident. I welcome Senators' comments. This has been an interesting debate and has sent a clear message about the House's opinions on this issue as well as on the importance of protecting childhood in the broadest sense. It was relatively recent in our history that we started valuing childhood. It would be a shame to see it lost so quickly. As Senator van Turnhout stated, Ireland has an opportunity to send out a clear message about our opinions on beauty pageants.

Senator after Senator outlined their opinions on this issue. They made it clear that they view the child beauty pageant business as unacceptable. We should make Ireland a cold place for beauty pageants. The US research has been cited. Subjecting young girls to beauty pageants can destroy their self-esteem, make their adult lives more difficult and lead to anorexia and serious problems in their psychological development. We live in quite a sexist society. We want to protect young girls and boys from premature sexualisation. Sending out a strong and clear message from the House will make an important statement. I hope it can be taken seriously by the media and society as they take note of the debate.

We all know that there is a great deal of pressure on parents that can be difficult to resist. That Senator van Turnhout, many of her colleagues and Deputies and I spoke out about beauty pageants when they tried to start in Ireland provided support to parents, in that they did not feel alone in their opinions on this matter. Parents can feel isolated. It is important that we pull back the curtain and give them more support in expressing their opinions and taking action. Various routes have been suggested by Senators.

The research will be helpful. I understand that the French legislation has run into difficulties, but we will follow that situation with interest and review other countries' initiatives. Legislating for this can prove difficult. At one extreme - some might not consider it extreme - this can be considered a child protection issue. Senator Leyden referred to a case in the US in which a mother using botox inappropriately on a young child was regarded as a child protection issue. At the extreme, this is clearly a child protection issue, although some Senators have expressed their opinion that it is a child protection issue right along the continuum. That would be an interesting topic for debate.

Even if we approach this matter via legislation, a great deal can be done in the pre-legislative phase in terms of information, education and support from all of the stakeholders, as Senator van Turnhout stated in her opening remarks. Many stakeholders in the community must be clear about their opinions on this topic.

I am pleased that the Seanad is giving out such a strong and clear message. I hope that this debate will be followed by initiatives undertaken by the many players in this field. We can never underestimate the power of having a debate such as this one and being clear in our views.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.