New Zealand’s Minister for Food Safety, for Customs and for Veterans, and Associate Minister for Agriculture, Hon. Meka Whaitiri was in India to attend the World Dairy Summit. SheThePeople got a chance to speak to her.
Minister Whaitiri is Māori wahine (woman), who is a vocal advocate of Māori Tikanga (customs or practices), including the concepts of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and protection as a way to manage the environment. The mother of two sons is also a champion for women in agriculture.
She spoke to SheThePeople about being an indigenous woman leader, the need for more women in leadership positions, and the similarities she observed between India and New Zealand. Some edited snippets from the interview.
Interview With Hon. Meka Whaitiri
What standout observations have you made regarding your interactions with women in India during your visit?
Since this is my first visit to India, I am humbled by the country’s hospitality. I feel quite grateful for everyone’s openness, not just ministers but other individuals I’ve had the chance to interact. Since I’m an indigenous New Zealand lady interested in women’s leadership, the work India does with its indigenous people is a particular interest of mine. People have been very open, warm, and hospitable, and I’m very fortunate to have had these experiences. The whole purpose of my visit is to extend the hand of friendship to India, that New Zealand is open for business. But more importantly, we are open to a sustainable relationship built on common interests.
What differences and similarities have you seen between the two countries?
There is a sense of cultural similarity. The importance of family, the importance of where we come from. So knowing where which state, or in my case, which tribe we come from, creates an immense sense of pride in maintaining our cultural practices as an extension of who we are as people. I see that as a similarity. In terms of strong women leadership, the fact that you have a tribal president (Droupadi Murmu) is absolutely fantastic. From a nation with not only our head of state who’s an indigenous woman, but our Prime Minister is a woman, and we have many woman ministers in our cabinet. So we are very pleased to acknowledge her appointment and look forward to one day you visiting us in New Zealand to share our experience.
What challenges do you believe women in both nations—particularly those who are members of the indigenous tribes- face?
The opportunities for women to display leadership, we all know we (women) have natural leadership skills. Often they’re contained within families or small groups; therefore, the wider community does not benefit from their wisdom and energy. In New Zealand, we continuously strive to have equal representation of women, and our ruling party has hit a 50-50 percent representation. A first for a mainstream party to boast.
In terms of indigenous women, I believe there are many opportunities in-store. Those who are in positions of influence can help others to come forward. We know women have the inherent ability to solve problems rapidly. We use the phrase “cut to the chase” to identify the problem quickly, come up with it, and talk to the right people in a timely manner. These are inherently women’s skills.
Due to the patriarchal nature of Indian society, many women who would otherwise participate in agricultural techniques ended up working as unpaid workers. What are the challenges faced by women in New Zealand’s agriculture sector?
The challenge in New Zealand is at a governance level. We have women leading industry or advisory groups, but they are often the minority. On-farm and in some industries, we’ve got very strong women. And we want to keep that as a norm instead of it occurring by accident. Now our job is to submit a woman coming through at all levels of the value chain and then making that quite normal. We don’t have to push for more gender balance. We have pockets of women doing some amazing work in agriculture with their own farm, whether it’s an industry, in processing, or in marketing and trade. We have them, but men still outweigh us at this point. Men aren’t the blockers. It’s just a woman’s confidence to speak forward safely and when they feel supported. In New Zealand, we work hard on supporting and identifying early and giving opportunities, particularly to young women, to test their ability in a safe manner because once they have a bad experience, you’ll never get them back.
Kiwi newsreader Oriini Kaipara made history by becoming the first to anchor a TV news bulletin with a traditional face tattoo – Moko kauae. This was path-breaking and made headlines worldwide. How did you view this achievement?
We have our first Māori Woman Minister for Foreign Affairs- the honourable Nanaia Mahuta, with a Moko Kauae. It’s more common than not in New Zealand to see it around, but many non-Māori probably do not understand its significance. When Oriini Kaipara appeared on mainstream TV as a fluent speaker of our native tribe but presenting mainstream news in English, it did cause some concerns. Like in many countries, unless you understand the cultural significance, you generally will make statements that can have a racist connotation in some respects. We’re so proud of, Oriini, and what they have achieved. Oriini got a role on mainstream television that she uses today. She can speak very good English, and even though it would have been confronting for her, it was a lot of support for her as well. And she is one of many, Māori women who’re on international stages, like our Minister Mahuta, who’s also.
New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote. And now New Zealand leads the world as far as gender parity in politics is concerned. How has increased political participation helped uplift women’s position in society?
Around our Cabinet table, I believe there are more women than men. New Zealand’s cabinet is extremely diverse, so it’s not just about gender balance, and I would say that the gender is more to women than men, but it’s the ethnicity inclusion part of the cabinet which is also diverse. So we have not only a gender balance but an ethnic balance. Probably one of the most diverse and gender-balanced cabinets in the history of the New Zealand government, and we’re very proud of that.
It sends clear indications to young women coming through that they can strive to be either on boards or be the country’s prime minister.
Who were some of your personal and professional role models? Why do you think role models are important?
So most of my role models are no longer with us. They’ve passed on. So definitely my father, who was a very silent, spiritual and humble man, gave me part of those values of humility, of my faith. The best way to contribute to a conversation is not to say anything. And being able to know the difference between always having to speak and not, not acting, living your actions speak louder than your words.
I had a professional mentor who was not here with me, who picked me up at 22. The professional side of what a leadership team look like, how you can work with others and the team, how you can always give good advice even though people may not understand, to take your time. I’ve got a very strong mother. I’ve got a very strong sister, I’ve got a very strong grandmother. But to have two males around our woman values with some practical values, I think, is what’s helped me to achieve what I have now. But like I said, they’ve also taught me that you never know everything and should always be a lifelong learner.
What would you say to women who want to chase their dreams?
Ohh, without hesitation to, just go for it, just. Never be afraid to ask for help. Find some good mentors that you see represent values similar to yours. Never hesitate to approach them, particularly the younger ones, to ask for guidance and help. Not be the woman who is not prepared to help another woman, or at least sit-down and have a coffee to share. So as we get older, it’s really important that we help those coming after us. I have five nieces, I don’t have a daughter, but I have two sons, and I always try and be there for my nieces, taking an interest in their life and their family life. What they’re doing in the scenes of the work, how they’re taking care of themselves. I always try.
Just having outlets with friends where you do not have to work 24/7, but you respect their perspective because it always comes from a place of love and care. And that’s what I would advise young people with dreams as pursuers. As for assistance, don’t be shy. Don’t over analyse and find really good friends who will always be there to support you.
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Transcription Done by Jayanti Gautam.