Jenny Shipley

Jenny Shipley was the first female prime minister of New Zealand. Born in Southland, she trained as a teacher and joined her husband Burton Shipley in a large farming partnership before becoming involved in local government politics. During the 1990s, she served as minister of Women’s Affairs, Health, Social Welfare, State Services, State Owned Enterprises, Transport, and the Accident Compensation Commission, and was a driving force in the economic and social reforms during this period. Elected prime minister in 1997, she guided New Zealand through the “Asian crisis” and back to positive economic growth. She led the New Zealand delegation to the 1995 Beijing United Nations Conference on Women.


I am deeply honored to be part of this critical conversation about reproductive health and wish to bring a sense of urgency to it. I was born in 1952 when there were about two and a half billion people on the planet. Today there are seven billion people, and the demographers project that in another forty years there will be nine billion plus. This is a daunting projection! It has serious implications for many issues we face, including the human footprint and its impact on climate. I was raised to face all issues with honesty and confidence. That’s what we must do today as we deal with reproductive health at the local and global level.

People sometimes don’t wish to talk about things that embarrass them, but sexual and reproductive health, family planning issues adn their consequences are the daily reality for most women under fifty.

As always, women’s rights and global health are of utmost importance to me. Women make up the highest proportion of people living in extreme poverty. Women represent the highest percentage of refugees and displaced persons in the world. The persistence of rape, genital mutilation, and other forms of violence against women continues to be of critical concern globally, and progress is frustratingly slow. Women globally have continued to have insufficient access to the resources necessary to achieve economic independence. Whatever their situation, women need a sufficient income to break or avoid the cycle of poor health, educational disadvantage, and low status, and to do that well, they must be empowered to control their fertility.

By and large, women in New Zealand are fortunate compared with some other countries, including many in our own region. In my country, Maori people hold a special position in our society. Maori women, in particular, have led a renaissance of Maori culture. Every day Maori women are demonstrating resourcefulness, innovation, and leadership in the development of new programs, often through their community organizations, such as the Maori Women’s Welfare League. We must enable all women, regardless of their cultural background, to fully participate in aspects of economic and politicallife and ensure they are able to be fully involved in the decisions that affect them. And while cultural practice can sometimes add complexity, it must not be used as an excuse to deny women the ability to have control over the timing of their babies’ births; this can be assured by access to family planning support.

People sometimes don’t wish to talk about things that embarrass them, but sexual and reproductive health, family planning issues and their consequences are the daily reality for most women under fifty. These things must be talked about and acted on as the lives of all women, their families, their children, and the future of the community and the planet depend on it!

Every child deserves to be a wanted child. Every child deserves to be cared for. Every child deserves to live a full life. If these are clear goals – if the reproductive health strategy worldwide can seek to achieve that goal – we not only defend the rights of women and also ensure the rights of the next generation, but we will also have an impact on the issues of climate. When you talk about the future of the environment, it means nothing unless you are also talking about the future of our children. For me the carbon footprint is irrelevant if we’re not courageous enough to talk about the human footprint. I want to put the issue of population and reproductive health in the forefront.

International institutions often avoid talking about the issue of reproductive health and family planning, yet they wring their hands about the changes we observe in our climate. These issues are directly connected! If governments funded the cost of family planning and made it available to all women who wish to have this voluntary choice, it would be the single most useful step global governments could make to sustaining the planet – so why wouldn’t we act now?

Let us get the conversation going and the information flowing again, and let’s make sure the major players – women and children – are included, not simply the subject of the discussion.

In my experience, when people have information, they are empowered to take control, to make choices that then allow them to have control of their lives. Learning empowers. Let us convert the conversation in a meaningful way so that children on the streets of New York, children on the streets of Asia and on any continent feel that this conversation is about them. Let’s use social media to spread the word, to fuel the debate. Technology is changing lives – we can be at the forefront of that when working to promote reproductive health if people will be upfront and open-minded about providing meaningful and affordable solutions to today’s great challenges.

The serious problems facing the world today will only be solved if women have a seat at the table and are listened to as to what is required. These issues will never be solved until women are able to use their full potential on behalf of themselves, their families, and their global and local communities. The current structures tend to marginalize women’s issues and to mute women’s voices. This has to change.

Women from all corners of the globe are watching us closely. They demand we provide hope for their future. The work we do must be capable of improving women’s lives and be worthy of their hopes and aspirations, to bring about real change and real improvement in the lives and status of women globally.  Governments and decision- makers at all levels must see that women are empowered politically and economically so that they themselves have the tools and the ability to make the decisions that will bring about real change in their own lives, and in the lives of their children and families, through having access to family planning when they need it.

Men and women are responsible for developing those priorities and strategies that will guide our efforts toward a better future for women in the twenty-firstcentury. Our daughters and sons, their children and grandchildren, have high expectations of us. We must confront the realities of people’s lives and act to make a real difference. We must not let them down.