126 years of suffrage: How Vanisa Dhiru is shaping a gender-equal future

By Nicole Saunders

It concerns Vanisa Dhiru that New Zealand, which once led the world in gender equality, has slipped into ninth place, saying the government has no action plan for women or for dealing with serious issues such as domestic violence, homelessness and poverty. KRISTIAN FRIRES
It concerns Vanisa Dhiru that New Zealand, which once led the world in gender equality, has slipped into ninth place, saying the government has no action plan for women or for dealing with serious issues such as domestic violence, homelessness and poverty. KRISTIAN FRIRES
When New Zealand became the first country to give women the vote in 1893, our antipodean nation was way ahead of its time. But, says equality activist Vanisa Dhiru, while we have plenty to be proud of, now is not the time to be resting on our laurels as gender inequality still exists.

Three years after women were granted the right to vote, suffragists founded the National Council of Women of New Zealand with Kate Sheppard at the helm as the founding president.

Today, 123 years later, 38-year-old Vanisa Dhiru holds the reins as the president of New Zealand’s most iconic women’s organisation.

However, the role isn’t Dhiru’s paid day job and nor is it the only extracurricular position on Dhiru’s impressive resumé.

By day, she is the community manager of InternetNZ – a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to ensuring New Zealand has better access to the internet – and by night, she sits on a number of advisory groups and boards including the Inland Revenue Department’s diversity and inclusion group, and He Tohu, the National Library exhibition that hosts Te Tiriti o Waitangi, He Whakaputanga and the women’s suffrage petition.

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Dhiru’s role with the National Council of Women sees her spearheading projects dedicated to ensuring a gender-equal future for all New Zealanders.

“We’re the umbrella group for organisations that have an interest in gender equality,” she explains.

Each week, Dhiru and the council are communicating with government select committees, ensuring the organisations and members with a vested interest in a gender-equal New Zealand have their voices heard.

“Domestic violence, women in leadership, education, housing and poverty, pay, climate change – all of those issues have a gender lens that can be applied to these issues to create change,” she says.

So how does Dhiru think New Zealand fares on the international sphere as far as women’s rights are concerned? For a start, she believes Kiwis have a lot to be proud of. “That a woman of an ethnic background can take the highest leadership position of New Zealand’s most iconic women’s organisation is pretty remarkable,” she admits.

“I’m the same age as our prime minister, so it goes to show that in this country you can do those things and have people support you. That’s something we should hold special to our hearts.”

But Dhiru is not one to wear rose-tinted glasses.

She believes New Zealand is a lucky place to be a citizen, but because we were the first country to earn women the right to vote, we need to be doing more to make the future better for all Kiwis.

“We might be doing better than some countries, but we still have a growing homeless population, we still have kids that go to school without lunch, and we have carers, nurses and teachers who are completely undervalued in our society,” she says.

The glaring reality is that while New Zealand once led the way in gender equality, we’ve now slipped to ninth in the world.

“Our government doesn’t have an action plan for women,” Dhiru explains. “We haven’t had strong commitment to have a gender lens put through all of our government policies.”

Shockingly, New Zealand has the worst reported rates of sexual and domestic violence in the developed world. Domestic violence is just one of the many issues Dhiru hopes to tackle with Gender Equal NZ – a national movement led by the National Council of Women.

Dhiru explains that the National Council of Women wants to ensure the work they do aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals – particularly number five, which is gender equality.

“It’s really important for us to take into consideration every gender in society. Gender is no longer a binary,” she says.

Not only have times changed, Dhiru believes talking about equality is what their founding president would have wanted.

“Her [Sheppard] actual words, used when she first started the movement, was for everyone to have an equal say. It wasn’t about women’s rights. It was based on everyone being equal and having a say in society.”

Dhiru says the public’s response to Gender Equal NZ has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People really want to take part in the conversation.” However, some commentary on social media has reminded her that we still have a way to go.

“There’s still a sector of society that really believes there is no gender inequality in New Zealand or there’s no problem with our domestic violence statistics. These attitudes exist and there’s more work to be done,” she says.

Dhiru says the first place to start is by acknowledging that equality isn’t a reality for all. “We have a culture that limits different parts of society and one part that’s often limited is women in lower-paid jobs,” she says.

“We want these attitudes to change around the boardroom, the schoolyard and around the table to enable anyone to do whatever they want to do, no matter what their gender. We need a strong culture that’s positive to allow people whatever their gender to do whatever they want to do.”


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