Taking stock of women’s roles in New Zealand

March 2, 2009

sandradickson- Sandra Dickson is a feminist studying journalism at Whitireia Journalism School. She has worked to prevent violence against women in organizations in the UK and New Zealand, helping establish the counter-trafficking Poppy Project where she wrote “Sex in the City, Mapping Commercial Sex across London,” the first attempt to map the commercial sex industry. Now living in New Zealand, she is active in the Women’s refuge movement. She blogs as Luddite Journo. The opinions expressed are her own -

New Zealand was formally colonised late in world terms, after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed with indigenous Maori in 1840. Colonists came with grand ideas of building a “better Britain.” All could aspire to own property, and the most advanced indigenous people in the world were to be treated the best by the most humanitarian settlers.

This “better Britain” included fewer restrictions on women’s roles, partially shaped by Maori societies with quite different gender norms about what it meant to be a girl.

By 1893, New Zealand became the first nation-state to enfranchise women, congruent with the developing self-image of an egalitarian society with no class divisions, racism or sexism.

According to politician William Pember Reeves, “they simply asked for the vote, and we simply gave it to them.”

New Zealanders largely continue to believe girls can do anything. Inequality and gender conflict are minimized, while women’s successes are well-noted and often receive world renown.

International Women’s Day events on March 8 will be attended by women working hard to ensure the rhetoric matches the reality. Power is never “simply given” away, and despite legislation promoting equality, New Zealand women face particular battles precisely because power imbalances are unacknowledged, often neutered by “de-gendering.”

For example, domestic violence is now “family violence.” Despite the cuddly renaming, it remains both endemic and deadly.

Police attend an incident about every seven minutes. One in three women report experiencing male partner violence during their lives. A woman is killed by her former or current male partner every five weeks.

Yet retail giant The Warehouse could briefly sell “Lady Killer” sweatshirts, complete with a picture of a drunk woman in her underwear, apparently with no fear of backlash. New Zealand women were not so compliant.

A national sexual violence taskforce is currently investigating why, despite improved technology and increased reporting, rape cases rarely result in a conviction.

Most women still do not report rape most of the time. When they do, they often face trial by media.

Louise Nicholas alleged she was raped as a teenager in the 1980s. The case centred on whether we believed a young woman would have consensual sex, including with a baton, with three police officers at once.

All three were acquitted in 2006 – two returning to prison to finish serving sentences for gang-raping a different young woman. This had been inadmissible in court lest it influence decision-making.

The sex industry, decriminalized and relatively small, employs growing numbers of migrant women from south-east Asia and Eastern Europe. Yet trafficking into prostitution continues to be something we read about happening in other countries.

Last election women made up 34 percent of parliament. The Green and Maori Parties use gender co-leader positions to safeguard women’s representation. After nine years of Prime Minister Helen Clark, oft-vilified by opponents for her looks and choice not to be a mother, leadership of both major parties is now back in male hands.

Government responses to the global recession prompt questions about women’s workforce participation, and signs in New Zealand are not promising. A newly elected centre-right government plans to boost economic recovery by building roads, cycle-ways and schools – jobs for women do not feature.

They have also axed programmes to improve women’s pay in the public sector – still lagging behind men’s by nearly 10 percent in the field of social work, for example – in order to control public spending.

So International Women’s Day in New Zealand brings challenges. The reputation for gender equality precedes us – but also makes it difficult at times to name struggles as gendered. It will be a day for reflection, for women from New Zealand’s many ethnicities to come together and take stock.

Where we have come from, where we wish to go.

How we match the rhetoric of equality to the reality of absence of discrimination and oppression.

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