Empowering and educating women is one of the most effective means of controlling the world’s growing population according to Former New Zealand Primer Minister Helen Clark.
Helen, who is now the United Nations Development Programme administrator told a Katikati Rotary Club charity dinner in Waihi that women hold the key to helping over-come many of the world’s problems.
“Keeping girls at school longer helps them lift their horizons and dream of a different future,” says Helen.
“Every extra year of a girl’s education means she is more likely to give birth to children who live longer than their first five years, and she will have fewer children.”
However, in many countries such changes took time because of cultural and religious beliefs. Large families had been common among Western nations in the past and Helen quoted the many children born to her grandparents when access to birth control was not available.
The UNDP has a focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment and when Helen was appointed in 2009 she became the first women to hold the role of administrator.
She told the dinner that women are a pathway to achieving the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals for 2015, which are to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability and develop a global partnership for development.
Rwanda was an example of how countries could recover from crisis with its average annual growth of real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 8.4 per cent in the past five years.
That country, ravaged by the genocides of the 1990s, was still mourning its dead but looking to the future and women were playing a key role.
With 56 per cent of its members of parliament women, it had to highest percentage of women in government of any country in the world.
Helen says the UNDP concentrated on building resilience among governments and people so they could survive crisis be it war or a natural disaster.
She spoke of her visit to Africa’s south-western Tillabery region, one of Niger’s most vulnerable areas in terms of food insecurity.
There she saw a UN-supported agricultural project in Molia where villagers are learning to grow vegetables in a sustainable way while improving their own nutrition and earning an income
“In this village work had been done to build a reservoir, mainly by hand, to fill with water during good rains.
“The people were also learning to grow vegetables. These are pastoral people who traditionally raise animals and grow millet.”
The water storage and new skills for producing food were giving the villages increased resilience to survive drought.
However, 10 to 15 minutes away was another village which had not had the opportunity to build a reservoir. There 16 year-old mothers with malnourished children were walking to feeding centres to get food supplements while their men often walked to another country to find work.
“While they are away the women will sell everything they can from jewelry to household items to bundles of clothes to get food for their children.”
The contrast between the two villages showed how effective even a small investment could be in making a significant difference to people’s lives.
Another problem which needed addressing was helping people with few resources, to preserve and store excess food they were able to produce in good times to get them through the tough ones.
“In some cases 30 to 40 per cent of food rots if there is no way to store it or get it to market.”
Even without modern methods of preserving food, some women were using their ingenuity and had dried cabbage which they later rehydrated by cooking in a little water.
Helen spoke of the conflicts around the world, including in the Middle East and the hard road ahead for those nations as they rebuilt, particularly where authoritarian governments had fallen, leaving behind little in the way of public administration to regulate and run the country. It was in these areas that the UNDP often stepped in to help.
Climate change and rising sea levels will impact many Pacific nations including the low lying islands of Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Tokelau Atolls, she said.
Helen predicted extensive droughts in the USA and flooding in Europe would impact on world food supplies and if food became scarce that could lead to further unrest.
The charity dinner raised $4000 for the Waihi Beach medical trust.