Waiata and a round of applause welcomed Helen Clark at the National Council of Women conference in Auckland.

The former Prime Minister is officially the council's new patron.

Speaking to an audience of more than 200 people in Mount Wellington the former Prime Minister did not shy away from addressing issues facing women.

In a Q&A with National Council of Women chief executive Dr Gill Greer, Clark discussed violence against women, pay equity, leadership and abortion law reform.

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She told the crowd a cross-party approach is needed to tackle New Zealand's rates of violence against women.

"We need to lift it up above politics, say it's a national crisis, because it is, and have a determined effort to fix it."

Clark cited a recent index by the Georgetown University that ranks New Zealand 18th in the world for women, peace and security.

"This is absolutely shameful."

She said it's violence against women that's marring our ranking.

"Men who hit women are expressing a view that women are inferior to them and they can do whatever they want to them. You've got a fundamental attitude problem."

Clark went on to warn that gender equality and women's rights always face the threat of slippage.

"They key to getting transformational change is to bring enough people with you but somebody's got to stand out the front and mobilise support around that.

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"Who would have thought that there would be even the question raised in the United States of America as to whether the constitutional right to abortion, established in the Roe v Wade decision of the Supreme Court, would be under threat and yet they're one Supreme Court nomination away from that," Clark said.

Abortion falls under the Crimes Act in New Zealand and Clark hopes the current Prime Minister can rally support to change that.

"Jacinda is right. It is an anomaly to have abortion sitting in the Crimes Act."

Greer was delighted Clark accepted the role of patron.

"She's hugely busy but her passion and her work for women is undeniable. When I asked about the glass ceiling, she said you have to push open the door and roll out your own red carpet," Greer said.

"She's not just a figurehead, she lives and breathes this work," she said.

The theme for this year's conference was Strength in Diversity.

This year marks 125 years since women won the right to vote in New Zealand, with the official anniversary of women's suffrage on September 19.