Promote gender equity and build resilience in communities: Helen Clark

RI President (2017–18) Ian Riseley in conversation with former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark at the RI Convention in Toronto.
RI President (2017–18) Ian Riseley in conversation with former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark at the RI Convention in Toronto.

From gender equity to Rotary’s focus on building resilience in communities for sustainable development, New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark engaged the delegates at the RI Convention in Toronto as she shared her views with RI President Ian Riseley. Excerpts from the conversation:


Riseley: You came to politics at a time when women in politics were an exception because when you were elected to Parliament in 1991, there were 100 MPs of which only eight were women. What was that like?

 Helen: It was worse than that. There were 92 MPs and eight were women; that was less than 10 per cent. So we were considered a lonely little group. And that was twice the number from the elections before. So people started saying that the women were taking over. But really not much was expected of us, as very few women have been Members of Parliament. This despite the fact New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world that fought for women acquiring the right to vote 125 years ago. But we were considered a little bit of a novelty because ­Auckland, which is the largest urban centre, had only ever had one woman MP two years before I appeared on the scene. No woman wanted to be a Prime Minister; their aspiration was to be a minister.

For Rotary to focus internationally, support people who are so susceptible to nature’s vagaries.

With Ian’s permission I have a little story about the very first election campaign I had. I addressed a local Rotary club in a small town. After my presentation, one of the members present — there was no lady member at that time — stood up and said to me: “You know, with the skills that you’ve got, you’ll make a wonderful farmer’s wife.”


Well Helen, times have changed after that; 40 per cent Rotarians are women in NZ. Now New Zealand has a PM Jacinda Arden who has given birth to a baby. What do you think about Jacinda having a baby as PM?

Jacinda is a remarkable young woman elected to be the PM at 37. At that age, I became a Cabinet Minister, a junior one. Times have changed as to what younger women can expect to do in politics. Jacinda is very much her own person and has her own style. She has given birth to a baby. Her partner will stay at home and look after her infant when she goes back to work after six weeks of parental leave. There is lot of significance in this because when
I started in politics, it would have been unthinkable. One, that the PM will be a woman; two, that she’ll have a baby; and three, that she would not be married to her partner. So New Zealand really has changed for the better to be a more tolerant and accepting country.



Rotary is like the UN in a few ways. We have had many women leaders, but not that many towards the top. Some people might say does it matter. Tell us why you think that it is important we should not just concentrate on getting the best person for the job but also why we should include women for the top position?

Firstly, I would like to quote Hillary Clinton: ‘Gender equality is not just the right thing to do because it is a human right. It is also the smart thing to do because with gender equality, you represent everybody. So, in all our organisations, whether it is Rotary, the UN or Parliament of a country, it has to look like the body that it is represented. That means in the normal course of events, women should be at the top.


You were one of the architects of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Give us a nutshell version of the agenda for sustainable development and what you would like to achieve.

Before the SDG, there was the Millennium Development Goals. Quite a lot of progress was recorded against them on issues such as poverty, hunger, gender equality, education and health. But not so much on environment. The SDG was formulated in 2015 to integrate people, prosperity and planet on the basis that these things are inter-related.

We are not going to resolve poverty and hunger if we continue to degrade our environment. It is challenging. There are a lot of things in the way. We have to re-double our efforts and all the good work that Rotary does in the community. Supporting the disadvantaged and the marginalised to break out of that is going to be an important part of it.


These goals are incredibly ambitious — no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy. Are these goals genuinely realistic?

They are aspirational but many developed countries can pretty much tick most of those boxes. Most of the societies are above the safety net, below which no one falls into a degrading abject poverty. That has to be the standard — that no one falls below that minimum level.

The most challenging goal for developed countries is on environment. Because the traditional way of developing a country is to first clean up the lighter ones. We have done a lot of damage in the process — like the removal of forests, climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. Our goal has to be to move to sustainable energy for everyone.


Why is gender equality so critical to sustainable development?

When women have access to education, the whole family will benefit. Research evidence shows that each extra year of education a woman gets, her child will get a better chance of living five years or beyond. So, just in a simple life expectancy of little children, it matters.

When a woman has education, her aspirations for her children are higher.

If a woman can complete her education, the age of marriage and her first baby will be delayed, which is good for her health. Parameters such as gender equality, equal access to education and health services, to be able to earn in the economy, are very positive for women than for anybody else.


What is the best and most effective thing that Rotarians can do locally and globally as an organisation to bring about a resilient, sustainable and an equitable world?

I look at the issue of food security which is so challenged by what is happening to the climate. Travelling to the dryland countries in Africa, I have heard small farmers say I don’t know when to plant a crop anymore. The rains are unpredictable. If you are a subsistence farmer and the rains don’t come and you have planted your seeds and used up the credit excess that you had, you are in deep trouble. And then, you would not be able to buy food. That is when hunger starts. The year 2016 was the first in the century where the number of ‘hungry’ people went up.

For Rotary to focus internationally, support people who are extremely susceptible to nature’s vagaries. There are initiatives like crop insurance; many people do not have new methods of irrigation for plants; some communities may have to make a transition from being nomadic to growing crops. At the other end of the scale, there is the flooding and increase in sea level. Part of securing better lives for people in the long-term is to build resilience to adverse events.


You were one of the stand-out ­candidates in the strong pick for the UN Secretary General’s role. Do you think that your gender had any impact on the result?

I have never asked anyone to vote for me because I am a female. But I don’t think that should be held against me either. And my experience in New Zealand was that if you kept at it, you would eventually crush through every glass ceiling which I think is a great thing about my country. The UN has not made that possible for women as yet. I really hope that the next Secretary General will be a woman and I will be supporting the deserving candidate.

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