Building an Inclusive World Amongst Women
Updated: Apr 29, 2019
Contributor: Stacey Shortall
I wanted to share a speech I recently gave for International Women's Day...
International Women’s Day is all about celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
And – don’t get me wrong – I believe there are many to be celebrated.
But I wonder if the women who will clean this room long after we leave this evening even know it is International Women’s Day.
I wonder if the mothers who will collapse home late tonight after working back-to-back shifts to support their struggling families, sleep a couple of hours and then wake up to ready their children for school, feel like celebrating.
I wonder if the women who were beaten or otherwise hurt by their partners today feel like International Women’s Day means something to them.
And I wonder if the women who are locked in our prisons tonight feel that aspiring to a gender balanced world will help them in any way.
I find myself asking whether this day – our day – that has been celebrated around the globe for over a hundred years, matters to me only because I get to dress like this, speak like this, look like this; be a partner in a law firm; live in a home that I own, with more material possessions than I need; not rely on anyone else for my financial security and instead have enough wealth to raise my children and save for my retirement.
I find myself asking whether building a gender balanced world first requires me to build an inclusive one amongst us women.
I think it does.
“Better the balance, better the world”
We women – both here and abroad – are fighting for gender balance.
But do we do enough to fight for all of us to participate in that struggle? Not only to get more women into boardrooms or public roles – which again, don’t get me wrong, is important. It does matter. And that fight is being made by the likes of great organisations like Global Women.
But are we fighting hard enough, long enough, loud enough to get more women into safe homes, safe relationships, safe workplaces? To get them into a place where becoming a champion for gender balance is even relevant to their day-to-day lives?
Statistics suggest otherwise.
Let’s start with our homes. A Police call out for a family violence incident in our country happens every four minutes. Two will happen in the time I stand before you speaking tonight. And we all know that the actual frequency is far greater – in fact 3 out of 4 incidents are not reported. You can do the maths – there is a family violence incident every minute. So we get to ten within the time I
am speaking here.
Let’s go to our relationships. One in three women in our country has been a victim of physical violence from a partner in her lifetime. When psychological and emotional abuse is included, it’s more than half of all New Zealand women. If that was not bad enough, one in four New Zealand women experiences sexual violence.
And let’s turn to our workplaces, where I suspect most women could describe hearing stories of or experiencing first-hand sexual harassment.
When I returned to New Zealand in 2010, I had spent over 11 years working at a lawyer in a Wall Street law firm. But I had also spent lots of time working as a volunteer lawyer in decaying projects in Harlem, in despairing family courts in the Bronx and in women’s prisons around New York State.
I did not recall these statistics. And even if I had known them before I left New Zealand, I wonder in all honesty if I would have connected in any way to them.
For I had never seen violence in my family home; never seen my father be anything other than respectful to my mother; never been in a relationship where a boyfriend had mistreated me.
I thought that the harrowing stories of rape and torture that I had needed to recount in immigration courts in the US where I tried to get aslym for refugee women, the evidence of sexual slavery that I had recorded when I volunteered for a NGO in West Africa and the accounts of domestic violence that I had introduced as evidence in US courts representing women who faced having their parental rights to their children terminated, were things of my past. Something to which I would not need to return as I instead focussed on raising my own four children.
But those statistics – our statistics – I heard them. I read them. And I felt them. They required something of me. More of me.
That’s what lead to the Who Did You Help Today charitable trust and our initiatives – Mothers Project, helping imprisoned mothers in prisons all around NZ; Homework Club, helping corporate and other volunteers connect to low decile schools and meet some of the most awesome kids this country; HelpTank, helping volunteers through a digital platform to connect to community causes and give back using their skills. And I want to acknowledge the people who are here this evening who use these programmes. The teachers and students from Rangikura School, Russell School, Glenview School and Holy Family School. The wonderful people from Skylight, Nisa, Volunteering NZ, the Celia Lashlie Trust, NCWNZ and Bellyful. The members of our Who Did You Help Today team who keep Mothers Project and HelpTank running. You are bettering the balance. You are bettering the world.
Your voices belong here. On this stage.
I fear that my voice does not do you or others like you justice. I fear that because I have represented abused women, worked in disadvantaged communities and advocated for social – and criminal – justice reform, I somehow get seen as representative of someone I am not.
I despair that my voice might be listened to when there are others fair better qualified to speak the words that matter.
I worry whether I can properly speak to issues of disadvantage and vulnerability when I am not in those circumstances myself. When my experiences of those challenges is only as a lawyer or volunteer.
I anguish over whether to speak out – not because I fear criticism but because I might silence those who are more deserving to be heard.
These struggles are not new. Historically feminism attracted concern about whether it was the catch-cry of white privileged women. Having not been born one in a working, farming family in the rural Manawatu, where I was the first in my family to go to university, it concerns me that I could be perceived negatively as one now.
So I remind myself this evening that better the balance means being willing to share the stage and enable others to come into the conversation. To let the lives and challenges of all New Zealand women become more of a focus of the struggle. I look forward to that. I suspect you do too.
And so on this day – International Women’s Day – as we stake claim to fighting for a gender balanced world, let us also demand more for each and every New Zealand woman. The ones who are not here this evening, who do not have the luxury of celebrating much in life, let alone International Women’s Day.
The women who may never sit where we do, yet who we must stand alongside. And when they cannot stand, who we must help out. Help up. Help share the better balanced world that we can all – together – create.
This speech was written by Stacey Shortall and presented at an event organised by Global Woman to celebrate International Women's Day 2019.