Labour’s Louisa Wall and National’s Jo Hayes prove it’s not all scrappy fights and witty quips between parties as they head off to Ireland to represent the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians NZ group. Daniela Maoate-Cox asks them what it’s like for a woman MP.
Being a woman parliamentarian is a “very tough gig”, says National MP Jo Hayes.
CWP is a branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. New Zealand’s group was set up in 2009 with former National MP Jackie Blue as its chair; Labour’s Carmel Sepuloni joined as co-chair later on.
“The purpose of CWP is to support women within the Pacific areas to stand for office, whether it be parliamentarian or at local government,” says Hayes.
New Zealand’s current Parliament is about 40 percent women which is a personal best for the country.
“For a number of years we languished at 32 percent,” said Louisa Wall, who has been an MP since 2008 and Manurewa MP since 2011.
“After our law commission review of our electoral system we saw quite a huge jump in women’s participation, but then it stagnated.”
There’s also a commitment to women’s representation in the Pacific, Wall says.
“One of the major issues is the status of women in the Pacific. There are high rates of family violence, women are seen as chattels of their husbands. Because of that status, we don’t see a lot of women who are putting their hands up to be members of Parliament.”
“That’s another aspect of the responsibility that we feel we have as New Zealanders to our Pacific brothers and sisters,” she says.
Widespread violence, harassment, and sexism
Grim experiences for women aren’t restricted to the Pacific.
In 2016 the Inter Parliamentary Union released a study it had done based on interviews with 55 women MPs from 39 countries covering five regions of the world.
The experiences from those interviews have stuck in Wall’s mind since then.
“The results were pretty shocking actually,” she said.
“Nearly 82 percent said that they experienced some form of psychological abuse and that means they were bullied, they were harassed, they were intimidated and made to feel - I hate to say it, but that they were subordinate ... they were MPs and this was perpetuated by their colleagues, their male colleagues.”
44 percent said they had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction during their parliamentary terms, including threats to kidnap or kill their children.
65 percent had endured regular sexist insults.
20 percent had been sexually harassed or suffered physical violence including being slapped and pushed during their term.
12 percent said someone had threatened to use a firearm or knife against them.
7 percent said someone had tried to force them into sexual relations.
The results paint a grim reality of parliamentary environments.
“Even if women can get into Parliaments I think this type of behaviour would make women reconsider whether they wanted to stay,” says Wall.
Hayes says New Zealand isn't quite off the hook.
“We are a lot behind the 8-Ball on this in Aotearoa New Zealand. Being a woman parliamentarian is a very tough gig,” she says.
“Not only do you contend with what’s happening in our jobs but there’s also our families, our homes to run as well.”
It’s not to say men “are useless” said Hayes. “It’s just how we operate as women, I’m very lucky, my husband does everything for me.”
“I think we’re dealing with cultural issues and ingrained behaviours that some of our male colleagues have engaged in all their lives,” Wall says.
She says they are planning to do their own study on MPs' experiences to gather evidence of psychological abuse, whether people have experienced death threats, sexism, or harassment.
Learning from Ireland
In 2017 Ireland’s Parliament set up the Irish Women’s Parliamentary Caucus - a cross-party group for women to discuss and campaign on issues for women.
It’s holding the International Congress of Parliamentary Women's Caucuses in Dublin Castle which is where Wall and Hayes are heading.
“They have invited about 300 delegates that are coming to this congress, it’s a big number across 36 countries that have been invited so we’re going to be amongst some amazing women members of Parliament,” Hayes said.
Women quotas, her-stories, social media and harassment will be discussed and a report on what they learn will be written for CWP and the Speaker of the House, who received the invitation to send representatives over, Hayes says.
It could also result in legislative proposals.
Recently, a bill under Hayes’ name was passed through Parliament. It was commonly referred to as the child marriage bill and requires 16 and 17-year-olds who wish to marry to get the court’s approval.
In summary, it will help prevent young people from being forced into marriages and was first initiated by former National MP Jackie Blue and Labour MP Priyanca Radhakrishnan who was a researcher for Shakti Women’s Refuge in 2010.
“That was a CWP supported bill and that’s the power of what CWP can do,” Hayes says. She’s confident that turning some of the information from Ireland into proposals with cross-party support is a possibility.
“We will get all the women gathered together across the parties to be able to help design, maybe, another bill that we can all support unanimously in the House,
“It’s a great day when women do that in Parliament,” she said.