By Amal Abikar
Recently I joined a packed audience at Deakin Edge at Federation Square to listen to the former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and first female Prime Minster of New Zealand Helen Clark about her incredible political journey and her exploits in the international development sector.
I sat next to a woman who was more excited than I was! She passionately told me about how she grew up with Helen and had been watching her career skyrocket throughout the years. She vividly recalled Helen’s early years as a fierce activist for various social movements including her strong stance against apartheid in South Africa and her unequivocal condemnation of the Vietnam War. I did not grow up with Helen. My interest in attending was to hear an authentic voice speak about how women have a leading role in shaping a more just and inclusive future.
I was hoping to be inspired and I wasn’t disappointed.
The relationship between gender and health and how they interact effects a woman’s ability to exercise her right to good health. Gender also plays a significant role in overall wellbeing. I was keen to hear Helen’s perspectives – and what role I could possibly take in shaping a just and inclusive future for women’s health. Offering an insightful discussion on the reality of gender inequality in politics, Helen captivated the audience (and myself), offering an insightful discussion on the BIG three:
Women, Health and Leadership.
For her eight years as NZ Prime Minster spanning 1999 to 2008, Helen was able to introduce health and education reform by establishing strong policy initiatives in the areas of nuclear disarmament and public health.
Helen spoke candidly about her role as the NZ Health Minister and highlighted some of her signature achievements including establishing midwifery as a full profession with greater autonomy and independence, removing the need for clinicians to sign off their work. The second success she highlighted was creating a Royal Commission (NZ) into cervical cancer and introducing NZ’s first universal cervical cancer screening program. The third accomplishment being the reduction in tobacco use through strong control measures in advertising and sponsorships.
To hear her insights, the challenges she faced and the impact of seemingly simple, yet complex interventions reinforced to me how critical evidence informed policy can be in achieving significant health benefits for the whole of the community, but especially women. It reminded me that Australia needs to be braver and have courageous prevention policy discussions.
Next, Helen discussed how female leaders around the world were scarce and identified the stark gender imbalance that too often exists in politics and business. While she focused on the gender-based barriers that permeate the political arena and the resilience she developed working in politics, her insights had applications to a range of other settings, especially the health sector.
She spoke about the importance of creating change by starting local, being authentic and engaging in our own communities.
As the current Board Chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH), Helen emphasised how women’s empowerment and gender equality are essential to global progress. One statement rang true to me: “we cannot build the future we want and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without the full participation of women”.
The talk was incredibly inspiring as Helen spoke about the importance of having a strong voice on sustainable development, climate action, gender equality and women’s leadership. As I left Fed Square, it was reaffirmed in my mind that it was time society prioritised the health and wellbeing of our communities by addressing inequitable health outcomes, especially in Melbourne’s northern growth corridor.