Case Studies for Economic Empowerment of Rural Women from New Zealand.

Sponsored by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission – Friday 15th March 2018

Written by Sylvia Heywood - President Soroptimist International South West Pacific – New Zealand  


Most of the week I have been listening to very sad stories about how traditional patriarchy and culture are affecting women’s human rights so this parallel event was just what I needed to lift my heart and learn about rural women’s empowerment.

New Zealand was the first country for women to win the right to vote 125 years ago. This session was a combination of both the CSW themes of ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls’ and the review theme ‘Participation in and access of women to the media, and information and communications technologies and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women’ It was chaired by Helen Swales the National President Business & Professional Women (BPW).

The first speaker was Fiona Gower the National President of Rural Women New Zealand. Also a graduate of the Agri-Women’s Development Trust Escalator programme and has served on the National council since 2013. Fiona set the scene by introducing us to the fact that farming and agriculture is New Zealand’s primary industry and as such is seen as the backbone of our economy and our rural women are the backbone that holds the community together. However, this is not always recognised by our peers or counterparts.

Fiona spoke about transferrable skills that women learn which are often not given recognition and needs to be understood.  She explained that isolation is the main problem and lack of access to internet means that rural women do not have access to business or for social networking etc.  Fiona said that women often go into rural areas with high standard of education. RWNZ celebrates these opportunities with a Rural Women Award and she spoke about three winners:

Lyn and Monique Neeson who turned unwanted sheep wool into Shear Warmth Wool Blankets. These blankets are sold from their farm. Their business has grown and they now need wool from other farms.
Another amazing initiative is the Tora Coastal Walk which brings in extra money to the farm. The funds raised has benefited the whole community.
Two southland-based accountants Hammond and Davidson set up an Accountancy company. They had both married farmers in the area and they have small children but they did not want to give up accountancy so they set up business together and now employ other women. 
Fiona said that rural based women were very able to take on leadership in both governance and management roles.

A subject close to my heart is getting mainstream media to print our stories and it is even harder for rural women. Social media therefore becomes another media tool for them to deal with.

Ashleigh Smith, a young anti-bullying campaigner and founding member and chairperson of ‘Sticks n Stones’, was next to present. She won the Queen’s Young leader 2017 for her New Zealand anti-bullying campaigning after she lost three schoolmates, who each took their own lives as a result of bullying. As a 19 year old nursing student Ashleigh focused on positive action to avert the risk of cyber-bullying and aggressive online behaviour.

Ashleigh told us how the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development wanted to set up a campaign to stop bullying and that our young people are fighting for a world where they are respected and their perspective is included in the decision making.  Ashleigh gave us some top tips for engaging young people:

No tokenistic crap
Be prepared to be challenged
Provide training and ongoing support
Value them

Check out her facebook page

Also check out her website   


The next speaker was Janet Gibb, from Business and Professional Women who is also an elected member on the Waikato District Council.  Janet told us that the Council constituents are from rural and small urban towns and villages that are close to cities but also rural. The Council implemented a youth strategy and committed to a Youth Adviser working through 5 local boards to find out what they think and tell us what we can do better!

Janet gave an example of a young woman from a town with a mountain. This town was significant and important to Maori and the young woman were aware of this and she pulled together the youth in the town to start clearing the track to an important site. Waikato district council have supported this young women and now she is binging to win awards.

The next speaker was Lauren Harrigan, rurally raised working at Double Denim. This is a rural based research company working with business and brands who want to make New Zealand better.  Lauren told us that the use of media will give economic power to our rural communities and movement of rural women such as equal pay. Lauren asked that we acknowledge that there is a clear urban-rural digital divide across New Zealand.  Lack of adequate connectivity affects learning especially when rural children can only access it when they reach high school. Creating a seven year lag on the instillation of the internet in rural areas in an age when women are transitioning into digital business and staying in their own businesses.

Lauren circulated a survey to as many rural women as possible what came back was information about isolation and the lack of digital capability. She believes that digital centres could be set up where for access to internet in the short term and in the long term we need telecommunication to roll out the network in rural areas as this is unfair to women in rural areas who don’t have this.

Check out this video from Double Denim 

The last speaker was Ruth Shanks AM a recognised member of the Women’s Association of New South Wales she was a former registered nurse and country women of NSW. The Associated Country Women of the World has been around for 90 years and will be celebrating this at the Conference of Club in 2019. Ruth talked about the funding of grass roots projects where project recipients come to them with their ideas, there is no corporate or government money, most money raised is from older women.  Projects are monitored and their impacts.

Ruth took us through the data which had funded 17 projects in 2017 throughout 11 countries benefiting 91,187 women and 15,295 children all linked to one or more SDG’s. Ruth reported that some had taken up training and were introduced to practical workshops which put them into good position when applying for internships. The aim to empower them to become agents of change in their community. Project activities took place after school or college. She gave an example of a women from Papua New Guinea who went to Fiji for eight months and when she went back to Papua New Guinea the women vowed she would do something in her community as the result of her experience and then started a Country Women of the World group and then recognised there was no training for young girls so she opened a school.  She came up with an idea for a Business Women’s Club and got funding for women so they could do what they wanted to do.

Lastly Ruth informed us about a survey which the Associated Country Women of the World and the World Association of Industrial & Technological Research Organisations  launched last night called the International Forum on rural Women which aims to gather a global perspective on the living conditions of rural women.  Here is the URL