Women breaking through the cultural barriers

  • Lianne Dalziel

Address to the Shakti Asian Women’s Centre Conference celebrating International Women’s Day
New Lynn Community Centre
45 Totara Ave, New Lynn, Auckland
10 am

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to open today’s conference, which has as its theme ‘Women Breaking Through Cultural Barriers’. I am pleased to be able to share a few thoughts with you as Minister of Immigration and as a woman member of Parliament.

I hope that I will be able to set the scene for the day, in the context of the objectives and outcomes that you have set yourself.

The fact that today has been organised as a partnership between Shakti Asian Women’s Centre and the Northern Region Business & Professional Women’s Association indicates a genuine willingness to do this, across the diversity of cultures that now represent New Zealand.

I particularly wanted to be here today, because I wanted to associate this coalition government with the directions you are exploring. We want New Zealand to be a country that more than tolerates diversity; we want New Zealand to understand and to celebrate diversity. In my view that represents steps along a continuum: tolerance enables understanding, which leads to equality across relationships – personal and professional. The reverse is true: intolerance fosters ignorance, which breeds fear and prejudice.

Breaking down the cultural barriers enables us to celebrate diversity. This requires us to become knowledgeable about the differences between us, and to build understanding.

I often make the point that there is not one New Zealander that does not have a migrant story in their past. So within us all is a point of connection. Each of us, or one of our parents, grandparents or great grandparents made a journey to make New Zealand our home, and if we think of today as the coincidence of those decisions made recently or in generations past, then we have a beginning point for today.

Reflecting on our own stories and sharing them with each other is good way to break down barriers. I always feel that the media has an incredibly important role to play in this regard. Thinking back to the Tampa situation last year, I recall reading a Herald Digi-poll pre-September 11 and post-September 11, asking whether there was support for the government’s decision to respond to Australia’s request for assistance in the way we did. Pre-September 11 it was 49% support; 45% opposed. Post-September 11 it was 59% support; 35% opposed. Frankly, I was surprised, but I think there were two significant reasons for the higher level of support, after an event that could have led to the reverse result.

Number one was the strong leadership of Helen Clark, who took a principled position and defended it proactively. Number two was the TV coverage of the situation in Afghanistan, particularly how women and girls were being treated by the Taliban. Overnight there was created, a collective understanding of why people would be so desperate as to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers. Knowledge is a powerful weapon against prejudice. Although opposition parties played politics, with their fear-mongering over the circumstances of those people that we brought to the country to determine whether or not they were genuine refugees, it made little difference in the context of this knowledge.

Hundreds of small acts of kindness have enabled people who described last year as ‘the worst year of their lives’, to look forward to the future with a real sense of hope. It is a new beginning for them, but it is important to remember that it is a beginning.

They and all other refugees and indeed all new migrants require their receiving communities to be receptive to them, or the process does not evolve beyond the initial settlement experience.

The Refugee and Migrant Service (RMS) has produced a video, which talks about resettlement from the perspective of the receiving communities. Refugees are no different from anyone else, in terms of needing to feel that all-important sense of belonging. Resettlement cannot be successful without it. This means communities must be welcoming and supportive.

This requires the combined resources of central government, local government and community organisations to ensure that appropriate information and support is available for refugees. In addition it requires former refugees to be involved in, and ultimately to be responsible for, co-ordinating resettlement programmes. An example has been the employment of former refugees as refugee education co-ordinators within the Ministry of Education.

This must also be the case for well-settled migrants, taking up networking and leadership roles not only within their own communities, but in the wider community as well.

One of the hopes that I have today is that you will be able to develop the means to nurture the leadership qualities you have as diverse New Zealand women, and that each of you will inspire others to break down the barriers that stand in the way of the celebration, that will make New Zealand a better place for everyone.

At the Unifem breakfast I attended yesterday, a New Zealand Official Development Aid programme was mentioned that involved selecting six women from Pacific Nations each year and sending them to the United States for training in leadership and community development. It is a mechanism for capacity building that perhaps we should think of in the context of the wide range of cultural backgrounds here today.

I am concerned that it took until 1996 before we had our first Asian woman MP in Parliament, and until the last election before we had our first Pacific woman MP. Parliament is the House of Representatives, and yet we still have a long way to go before we can say it is truly representative of New Zealand.

I read in the background material for today, the reminder that women are mothers and the first teachers of our children. When families migrate to or seek refuge in a country that bears no similarity to their previous life, where cultural norms are alien on both sides of the equation, and where even the language is unfamiliar, do we fully appreciate just how difficult that makes the mother’s role? Women on both sides of this cultural divide must join together to share the burden, for it is not one women should be left to carry on their own. Sharing our networks across communities is one way to do this, which brings me back to where I began in terms of acknowledging that today is such a partnership. That is its strength, and I am confident that you will achieve the goals you have set.

One last point I wish to make. This year, being an election year, means that pressure can get applied through the media on immigration and refugee issues, particularly by those who seek to obtain political advantage by scratching the sore of ignorance. I am confident that the New Zealand of today is much more tolerant and understanding than in the past, however, we have seen scapegoat politics before, and I am sure there will be those who try it again. By building a strong network of women, committed to the belief that knowledge is a powerful weapon against prejudice, I believe we can counter any such attempts.

Our vision must remain of an inclusive society, with all of its members able to contribute to NZ’s economic and social transformation, while at the same time, having an outward-looking approach that recognises NZ as a good international citizen, responsive to the natural and political crises that affect different parts of the world. Our capacity as a nation to celebrate our cultural diversity will be the measure of our ability to live up to that vision.

On that note may I officially declare the conference open, and wish you a very successful day.