Pay equity, stereotyping genders, women's suffrage 125 and the elimination of discrimination against women were laid bare at the Rural Women New Zealand regional conference hosted in Ashburton on August 3. The Otago Daily Times' Toni Williams reports.

Suffrage 125 - are we there yet? was the theme of the one-day conference hosted by Rural Women New Zealand Region two, with members from North Canterbury through to South Canterbury in attendance.

Guest speakers included Rural Women NZ president Fiona Gower, Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) United Nations chair Kerry Maw-Smith and National Council of Women New Zealand (NCWNZ) president Vanisa Dhiru.



Mrs Gower was at the Commission for the Status of Women's 62nd session in New York earlier this year, representing Rural Women NZ and Pacific Women's Watch.

She said throughout the world globally, the issues were the same, whether in NZ, India, or any other country.

''We talk of isolation, talk about lack of services - education and health, food security and land security and, of course, violence against women and children is a huge thing right about the world.''

''And even though we've had 125 years of suffrage, we're still not there yet,'' she said.

''We are leading other countries but we are still not there.''

Mrs Maw-Smith said the ACWW needed good information to accurately help its nine-million women membership.

Mrs Maw-Smith said changing minds and behaviour was harder than changing laws.

''You can change laws easily but to change minds takes generations,'' she said.


She encouraged rural women to complete the online ACWW global survey of the living conditions of rural women.

It would remain online for the rest of the year, then be used by the women's group as a basis for advocacy with issues for governments to address.


Ms Dhiru said the core principle taught by her parents growing up as the daughter of dairy owners in New Zealand was to say hello to anyone who came into the store, smile and say thank you.

''Whoever they were, whatever their background, whatever they brought - or didn't buy - and however they treated us.''

''That was the core principle taught to myself and my brother,'' she said, which lead her to the National Women's Council.

Ms Dhiru spoke of the strong women in her family - her grandmother and her mother - and of women playing a huge part in NZ history.

Two of NZ's women were mentioned, Kate Sheppard and Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, who were instrumental in the gathering of signatures for the suffrage cause.

''We know of Kate Sheppard (of the Women's Christian Temperance Union) and her suffragists who came together and got those petitions together three times before change happened in 1893, but some of the signatures belonged to Maori women who were convinced to sign by Meri Te Tai Mangakahia.''

She lead the Maori Christian Women's Temperance Union. Her husband was the key leader in the Maori parliament.

Women got the vote on September 19, 1893 but three years later nothing had changed.

So in 1896, 25 women from 11 organisations got together to form the national council of women.

''They didn't see a lot of change then, but the work they started unfortunately still continues today as there are still so many different issues to work through,'' she said.

''The link between the national women and suffrage is because of Kate Sheppard, and all of those leaders we had in our council who came from suffrage moment,'' she said.

Ms Dhiru was proud to be president of the council in the year of Suffrage 125, and thought it fitting with her Indian heritage, to look like the new NZ, ''as it was important to be reflective of the new and growing diversity that is in NZ''.


Ms Dhiru recently returned from the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in Geneva.

The detail involved in ratification to the convention - also known as the comprehensive bill of rights for women - was a big national commitment and, so far, 189 countries had agreed with the treaty.

However under the treaty, there were obligations that had to be met every four years.

Governments, civil societies and human rights commissions reported back their views about issues.

They were analysed and dissected by the CEDAW committee, and after due consideration - including hours of questions in front of a panel - gave recommendations.

The result was 70 recommendations in 15 pages, which was recently given, in draft form, to the New Zealand Government.

Key issues included a gender specific approach to legislation policy and programmes, national action plan for women, comprehensive strategy to eliminate discriminatory stereotypes, cross-party strategy for addressing gender-based violence, and the inclusion of mandatory, culturally-sensitive and age appropriated sexual reproductive health and rights education.


Ms Dhiru said the bread and butter of the NCWNZ was submissions to government, commissions and parliamentary inquiries; to date this year they had made 30 submissions.

There were 50 national member groups that were part of the council - a big increase on the original 11 - and this included Rural Women NZ.

''The journey for gender equality - goal five from sustainable development goals - is certainly not done.

''Every day there is [a] gender-related issue in the media ... whether it be a local issue, national issue or an international issue.''

The NCWNZ considered issues that needed to be raised, then aimed to bring perspective to the Government about changes that were needed.

''Gender equality needs a strong credible voice now more than ever.''

Ms Dhiru spoke of a gender attitude survey taken and how finally the message that ''girls can do anything'' was getting through, but there were still views about what men and boys should be like.

''If one in five Kiwis think boys should not play with dolls as children, how do they learn to be fathers?'' she asked.

''If we want men to be great fathers, they need to have a caring nature from a young age,'' she said.

Another result from the survey showed 19% of Kiwis thought it was more important for men to be in a position of power in New Zealand society.

''But if that percentage was from men in power, how does that help New Zealand women in leadership?''

NCWNZ has a Gender Equality campaign to question New Zealand society and its thinking.

''The general public think there is no problem. But its a systemic issue,'' Ms Dhiru said.

It requires changes in our thinking, and to start thinking and challenging the language that we use this included every day use, and in the media.

''If she's being a mum, why is he babysitting?'' was one example she gave.

Women needed to back themselves with applications for jobs and to negotiate pay ''not just for you but for every woman''.

''If we think we can't do that, we won't apply ... it's all rubbish, we just need to get in there, if you can't do 50% of the job, who cares, you'll learn.''

''Pitch above your weight, because that's what the males are doing,'' she said.

Women already within industries needed to work from inside them to push for pay equity, Ms Dhiru said.

She encouraged them to start the conversation, and said it was up to individuals to initiate the change and learn from our suffrage history.

It was individuals who started something and made a change.