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Suffrage Day Breakfast 2001 - Laila Harre Speech

Hon Laila Harre Speech Notes
Suffrage Day Breakfast 2001
Grand Hall

Good morning, and welcome to the young women who are gathered here this morning to help us bring a day rich in historical significance into a modern context.

Thank you also to the women MPs who are joining you to mark such an important day in our political history.

It is on days like this that I feel deeply privileged to serve as Minister of Women’s and of Youth Affairs. Both roles carry a responsibility to bring people who have been marginalised from the big decision-making processes into the heart of them.

When we get together like this to celebrate historical events on the path to women’s ongoing pursuit of equality it can be tempting to focus only on past successes and avoid an examination of the present.

This morning we are here to do both - to recall the stunning success of the sufragettes 108 years ago, and to put on record some of our hopes and aspirations for today’s and tomorrow’s girls and women.

Which means that we’re not just here to crow – we’re here to work.

The issues you raise this morning will help the Ministry of Women's Affairs to prepare New Zealand's report on our progress towards implementing the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, also known as CEDAW. This will be New Zealand's fifth report, and will be sent to the United Nations in May next year.

Many women and girls around the country have already been involved in this process, and your input will bring us a little bit closer to a report that reflects the reality of a broad range of women.

To achieve this, we need you to be honest. There's no right or wrong thing to say here this morning. The MPs at you’re table will help to keep the discussion going, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs staff will keep a record of it, and each of your tables will have some time to report back on the most important point you’d like to make to all of us.

It's coincidental that this year's Suffrage Day falls in Youth Awareness Week, the theme of which is "Express Yourself".

When we look back in time to the year women won the right to vote, 1893, and the 50 years of agitation and negotiation that preceded this victory it's clear that the suffragette's fight was all about self expression, specifically the right of women to express themselves on equal terms with men.

Similarly, Youth Awareness Week is about the rights of young people to express yourselves on equal terms with the rest of the population, and the responsibility we all share to create opportunities or the physical space for this to happen.

This is one of those spaces, and I'd encourage you to use it to tell us how you really think we are doing when it comes to creating a society that reflects the realities women, and how we could improve on history.

When you are considering this, bear in mind that 100-odd years ago when Kate Sheppard and the suffragettes were protesting, lobbying government and organising broad support for their cause, they were campaigning for much more than just our right to vote.

The passage of the Electoral Bill was the first step this country took towards the formal recognition and elimination of statutory discrimination on the grounds of sex.

So while you may think the issue that burns for you doesn't have much to do with the big picture for women, think again.

Beneath broad issues like the cost of tertiary education, unemployment or youth mental health lie significant features that are unique to the experience of women. These are what we need to eke out.

While New Zealand has rid its statute books of overt discrimination, there's little doubt that women today face subtler, institutionalised inequalities that will be hard to shift without a little suffragette spirit.

For instance, winning the right to vote was the starting point for New Zealand's excellent international standing when it comes to women’s representation in parliament and in cabinet, but it's going to take a little more work on our part if we hope to achieve true equality.

Women make up one third of our current parliament, and come from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and geographical areas.

But since when was a 20 per cent gap deemed equality? And our population is much more ethnically diverse than our parliament. While several of our male colleagues have fathered new children while they were sitting MPs, we recently celebrated our first birth to a woman MP – Katharine Rich – in many many years. There are, in short, some significant changes that will need to occur if women are going to achieve equal representation in our parliament.

Women also earn up to 20 per cent less than men on average for the hours we work, and are hugely under-represented in the top three tiers of management.

Domestic violence, and other forms of violence towards women remain a huge obstacle to equality.

We take twice as long to pay off our student loans – which means that teritary education is even more expensive for women than it is for men.

The good news is that in retirement you can expect to gain the greatest level of income equality with men that on current trends you are likely to have during your working life – because of our universal superannuation scheme.

The better news is that we are determined as a government to begin addressing some of the big questions that remain for women. From April 1 next year we’ll have paid parental leave. We have passed laws that recognise that it is not only people in marriages that need fair rules for carving up assets if the relationship ends, but will extend these rules to people in de facto and same-sex relationships. We are tackling issues around childcare and care for children before and after school and in school holidays. We have raised the minimum wage twice, we have almost doubled it for 18 and 19 year olds and by next year it will be about a third more for 16 and 17 year olds. And the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is preparing a strategy for improving women’s health and another one for delivering equal pay for women.

All of these steps, and others that we are taking, will help us to front up to the UN next year with a report that shows we are taking very seriously the commitments we made, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world, when we signed up to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Today is your chance to add your ideas to the list.

Don’t be shy about it.

Be brash. Be brave. Women, and young people, in general share high aspirations for social justice, for peace, and for equality. And rightly so.

As Kate Sheppard and the suffragettes showed us, positive social change is most likely to happen if it is led by people on the ground. This morning, that’s you.

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