Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

Women we admire

September 24, 2017

One hundred and twenty-six years ago, a dedicated group of women turned up on the steps of Parliament. They were there to present a petition asking that women be given the vote, and 9000 signatures filled the roll of paper.

Although that petition failed, the moment was still momentous. It set the stage for another more successful petition, two years later, signed by almost 32,000 women. But it was the lady already sitting inside Parliament, watching on, who has always had my interest.

Laura Jane Suisted was not a typical 18th century woman. Born and bred in Britain, she had immigrated to New Zealand at the age of 22, bringing with her an unusual amount of independence, determination, and writing skill. She would put those to use shortly, but first, she married an entrepreneur, destined for financial success, in Otago.

Their marriage had to survive several failed businesses, flooded homes, and infertility. It did, and James Samuel Suisted finally made his money. Laura Jane, as she became known, was finally able to make her indelible mark on New Zealand history.

In 1884, a new writing interest captured her attention. Already a published writer, and regular contributor to several publications, Laura Jane found herself now sitting in on the sessions of our 30-year-old Parliament as a note-taker. According to the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, she was probably the first woman to do so.

There was a more important “first” to come. In 1891, the very same year that Kate Sheppard and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union handed over that first petition on the female vote, Laura Jane was admitted to the New Zealand Institute of Journalists.

She was the first female member in its history.

It took almost a decade as Parliamentary correspondent for several newspapers to earn a spot in the Institute.

So it was that one of my relatives gained a front-row seat to the greatest political debates of the time. She did it without the help of anti-discrimination laws. She did it without other women smashing the glass ceiling ahead of her. She did it without even having the right to vote for the very politicians about whom she wrote every day.

She achieved that incredible career using things I admire far more: sheer determination, raw talent and mountains of skill.

Now, 124 years after women gained the right to vote in this country, and 126 years after the New Zealand Institute of Journalists officially admitted its first female member, the question is not just “how far have we come?” but “are we still made of the same stuff?”.

After all, there is a terrible risk that comes with having tangible political power (in the form of a vote), for both men and women. That risk is that we begin to think it a substitute for righting wrongs we see in between elections days.

We begin to blame politicians instead of wondering what we can do ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, election days are critical, and the privilege of holding political power in our own hands is not something to be taken lightly by any of us. The values and policies for which we vote will change our country in years to come.

But women like Kate Sheppard and Laura Jane remind us all of something else too; they remind us that who we are on the days in between elections matters just as much. They remind us that what we do on the ordinary days can also change the course of history.

After all, it was on an ordinary day in 1891 that a woman was first named “member” of our Institute of Journalists in this country. And it was on an ordinary day in 1893 that women finally earned us ladies the extraordinary privilege of being able to vote today.

 

Dealing with death

September 16, 2017

One week out from a general election, our politicians just can’t seem to stay away from life and death issues.

Last week, it was abortion. This week, National MP Simon O’Connor got himself into hot water over the issue of euthanasia. He criticised the Labour leader for supporting both a zero suicide rate and euthanasia laws.

His boss, Bill English, texted him to tell him he was wrong to link the two, which makes you wonder whether English actually read the report on euthanasia that O’Connor, along with politicians of other stripes, produced recently.

On page 43 the report deals explicitly with the arguments differentiating suicide from euthanasia. The section points out that one of the world’s most important health organisations recognises that it is actually very difficult to do so.

“The World Health Organization acknowledges significant definitional difficulties in its most recent publication on the issue”, we read. “In its 2014 report, “Preventing Suicide: A global imperative”, it defines suicide as the act of deliberately killing oneself.”

That definition describes precisely what New Zealand euthanasia laws will aid people to do.

Our Kiwi report then points out that some try to differentiate between rational and irrational suicide, but again, the experts are not on board. Here’s what youth counsellors and suicide prevention organisations say:

“Suicide is always undertaken in response to some form of suffering, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. All forms are deliberate and intentional.”

What that means is that suicide, euthanasia and assisted suicide all involve deliberately choosing death as a response to suffering.

And it isn’t just experts pointing out that the difference is difficult to pinpoint. Check out the response from our politicians to O’Connor’s comparison: According to Prime Minister Bill English, “we don’t do that”. According to Labour leader Jacinda Ardern “it’s just wrong”. Even the author of the End of Life Choice bill himself simple said “the two issues could not be further apart”.

In fact ACT’s David Seymour dismissed O’Connor’s claim using the example of suicidal young people, a group we are rightly fighting desperately to save in New Zealand. But in Belgium where euthanasia is legal, a suicidal young woman won the right to euthanasia. Why? Because the courts agree that death is a reasonable and good response to suffering – physical or mental.

The issues are not quite so far apart as Seymour claims.

That is exactly why definitions matter. If international and local experts can’t clearly differentiate euthanasia and suicide, if our politicians are unwilling to enlighten us, then what hope have the rest of us got when we are trying to explain the difference to those suffering mental anguish around us?

The horror of suicide is an all-to-frequent reality in this country, so the question is critical. Besides that, family and friends left in mourning by a suicide, or those supporting the suicidal, have a right to know euthanasia laws will not mix our messages on the value of living through suffering.

If our fight against suicide is to be effective we simply must be able to explain why some physical suffering justifies death while the mental torture that is severe depression, or bipolar, or schizophrenia, does not. Don’t all involve horrendous, prolonged mental or physical pain? Don’t all involve loss of dignity at certain points? Don’t all involve loss of quality of life? Don’t all involve a shortened life expectancy?

When compassion means allowing some to choose death to relieve suffering, how can it also mean convincing others to live through it?

If we cannot answer these questions, then surely, we have to face the fact that what we are fighting with one hand, we are feeding with the other.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Making a choice

September 9, 2017

I would like to make a deal with the leader of the Labour Party.

I will vote for you, Jacinda Ardern, if you can convince me that decriminalising abortion will not take the lives of a more living human beings.

I don’t want to believe it does, after all. The implications for many women I know and love are, if abortion takes an innocent human life, almost unutterable. But the implications are worse for the child, and that’s why it is important I know, absolutely, before I can vote for you.

From my years of reading about this issue one thing sticks out: those who support abortion argue about women’s rights and protection. Those who oppose abortion do so because they say it ends the life of a living human being.

That second claim seems to me to be rather astonishing. Women have rights and need protecting, of course. But if the thing inside our womb is also a living human being, then it too has rights and needs protecting, and I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

The question then, that I absolutely MUST answer, is whether the thing produced by the combining of an egg and a sperm, and which spends nine months growing inside a woman’s womb, is in fact, a living human being.

Some tell me it is just an embryo, or a foetus. However, this doesn’t describe what species something belongs to. It simply describes a stage of growth. So if two human beings reproduce, it logically follows that they produce a human embryo or foetus. As the pro-life atheist Christopher Hitchens says, as a member of the human species, it then ought to have all the rights, including the right to life, that the rest of us enjoy.

Others have told me the thing is just part of a woman’s body. But the thing has its own unique DNA, quite different to the DNA replicated identically inside every other cell belonging to the individual we call its mother. In other words, it has its own individual biological identity. And that makes sense to me, because we know that a woman does not go on to give birth to a bit of her own body, but rather to another individual, nine months later. We also know that a woman cannot have an abortion unless she is pregnant; the same state by which she produces another individual.

But is this individual human alive? Well, if it isn’t alive, why do we need to have an abortion? We have abortions because that thing inside us is growing from the moment of conception, and growth is one of the signs of life, according to my 6th form biology class. Age, viability, or any other philosophical or biological measure by which we attempt to claim something is alive only leads to horrible ethical conundrums. For example, if the ability to survive outside the womb alone determines whether you are alive or not, then young children, the very old, and the disabled, are not alive and we may do as we please with them.

Some say the fact another living human being is involved doesn’t matter: That women simply need protecting from the way things used to be. But we don’t live in a society that looks anything like it did when abortion was illegal. Besides, who says that the rights and protections of a mother and her child are mutually exclusive?

You talked about choice on Monday night, Ardern. But if abortion involves ending the lives of human being, I can’t vote for you.

Like the child, I would have no choice.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

When losing means you won

September 2, 2017

Sometimes victory can look a lot like defeat. This week the New Zealand pro-life movement had perhaps one of its most important victories in years, but I doubt they realised it, because it looked a lot like defeat.

It came in the form of the Pro Life Club’s disaffiliation from the Auckland University Students’ Association. Not only was the club disaffiliated, but clubs with “a similar ideology” are banned from joining the association in future. That rather broad, loose wording, which might include any number of clubs, is yet to come under the steady eye of the law, so the game is not over yet.

But at this stage it is looking remarkably like the underdog came out on top, and for several reasons.

The least important is that there are over 40,000 students at Auckland University. How many of them belong to the Auckland University Students’ Association I could not find out. But only 2,700 turned out for the vote. If that is the entirety of the AUSA membership, it doesn’t say much for the Association. If it is only a small portion of the AUSA, it doesn’t say much for the members.

About 1600 turned out to vote in favour of disaffiliation, and about 1000 turned out to vote against. What happened to the other 100, heaven knows. The journalist certainly didn’t, otherwise he would have told us.

All-in-all though, the numbers surprised me. They really aren’t that bad for a club that is meant to represent ideas long-since regarded as ridiculous.

But the bigger picture is the more important one. Because, of course, the Students for Choice have finally shown that they are, in fact, not.

They are the Students Against Choice. That is because they are against those who disagree with them. And if you are against those who disagree with you, you absolutely must be against choice. After all, we only have choice when we have two or more options that really, truly differ from one another. We have a very poor choice in foods if all that lies on our plates are apples. Throw on an orange and we’ve got something different. We have got real, honest choice.

That’s the horrible thing about being pro-choice (in the truest sense of the word). It means being  ‘”pro” your opponent. It means fighting for his or her rights as much as you fight for your own.

Doing in your opponent is simply not an option. It is, in fact, the underarm bowl of (in this case) student politics.

And underarm bowls don’t go down well with Joe Public. We are a tolerant nation, you see. We abide by the motto “live and let live”. Minority groups can scrap among themselves over who is right and who is wrong, but at the end of the day, what we all really want is a fair fight.

The moment one little group starts picking off the competition, they start looking mighty mean. They start looking scary, even. Worse, the victim starts looking harmless, and rather deserving of our pity and support.

That’s why the Pro Life Club, which exited dejectedly from the field this week, ought rather to be celebrating.

In the eyes of Average Joe, they have just become the victims of an underarm bowl. Even better, their opponents are the perpetrators, and are starting to look rather mean-spirited and narrow-minded in spite of their name.

And in this debate, winning over the public is far more important than winning an affiliation vote.

There is one final reason, though, why the Pro Life Club ought to celebrate: Your opponent only sends an underarm bowl your way when they really, truly believe you have a good shot at winning the game.

Like I said, sometimes defeat is a victory.

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

Hope for mental health?

August 19, 2017

An important issue has lurked on the edges of the limelight for most of this election, sadly shunted out of reach of the main beams by leadership changes or falls from grace.

For weeks now politicians of most persuasions have made policy announcements or passing comments about it, but it still hasn’t had all the attention it deserves.

I’m talking about the topic of mental health in New Zealand. Specifically, our suicide statistics, which set us apart in the developed world for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, our youth suicide rate is so high that it made headlines on the BBC in June. “The rate of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people is twice as high as the US rate and almost five times that of Britain,” ran the story. The article focused on what might be behind that rate, and the conclusions punted to the British public were far starker and more blunt that what we are brave enough to say.

“There is a “toxic mix” of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem”, says an expert in the article.

But beyond the foreign news headlines lies yet another staggering statistic; that New Zealand’s rural population suffers from far higher rates of suicide than does its urban one. In fact,”suicide rates are higher in rural areas at 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 for every 100,000 people living in cities”, said yet another report earlier this year.

In total last year, the equivalent of 11 people each week took their own lives in what must be acknowledged as our nation’s mental health plague.

But again, rural or youth suicide isn’t the problem. It is a symptom – a symptom caused by a bad relationship with drink, with partners, or with guns. A symptom of broken families, abuse and poverty.

And that is where politicians and policy announcements come in. So far the subject of suicide has been treated as if it exists in isolation. So far we have heard about how to help mental health services cope through extra funding, or programmes that might be put in place to breed resilience. These are important parts of care, but they don’t address the problems.

Problems like family violence or child abuse or bad relationships that are linked so strongly to our negative mental health statistics. Problems like the breakdown of our communities that leads to isolation and an inability to connect to someone-anyone-who can help.

We are not, in other words, talking about causes, only the consequences.

That simply won’t do.

If we are to start seeing a shift in our statistics, surely we have to get beyond the band aids and start looking at why depression or mental health issues are so prevalent in New Zealand in the first place?

Surely we have to start scratching beyond the surface – no matter how scary it might feel- to find out what stark realities hide beneath.

And surely if strong, healthy, loving families, or connected communities, are linked to low suicide and mental health illness rates, as the Ministry of Health seems to suggest, then we need to start talking about how to nurture these. Yes, we may end up tripping over the toes of some of our deepest values, like the individualism that makes it so hard to hold families and communities together here, but saving lives is worth a little compromise, I think.

We can’t keep kicking the issues around like a political football. Surely when it comes to tackling an issue as serious as suicide, we are all on the same team.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

 

 

Finding a hero

August 14, 2017

I discovered a hero this week. I was flicking through the news for a little catch up on what is happening around the country, when I stumbled over a story on Grace Stratton.

The 17-year-old is a raising social media star and nominee in this years’ Woman of Influence’ awards in the Young Leader category. She’s got more grit than the glut of people sitting neatly under the peak of the Bell Curve because she is already studying and starting up a business.

Oh, and she has cerebral palsy, which means she is wheel-chair bound.

However, young Grace (quite obviously) hasn’t let that hold her back. Incredibly, in fact, she has found a way to use her disability as a way of getting ahead.

She realised early on in life that being disabled meant she got more attention for everything she did. Attention, she realised, was power. And if she had power, then she wanted to use it for good. She wanted to use it to (as her social media byline reads) to “mainstream disability, [and spark] diversity”.

If you’re not sure that this young woman is someone to keep an eye on, then listen to this quote from a recent interview she gave:

“I started the blog because I didn’t hear a voice like mine in the media and I was tired of waiting for it to come about, so I decided to be that voice….Someone’s just got to be brave enough to break down those walls, and I am more than brave enough.”

That’s right. Here’s a kid who has realised at 17 that we need to be the change we want to see in the world, and who has taken the first, bold steps towards doing so.

She hasn’t done it with blame. She hasn’t done it with anger. Instead, Stratton, as per her first name, has done it with grace.

It is an incredibly refreshing approach in a world that feels ever more tribal. These days it almost seems normal to hunker down and hurl insults with the others in our identity group as we all desperately try to prove how wrong the other side is (and by extension, how right we are). Most of the time the bickering seems to centre on who has more evidence that they are a victim, whether it is of sexism, white colonial oppression, or rich people.

So to stumble across someone who has every right to pull the victim card, and yet who chooses to see herself as a victor, is nothing short of inspiring. To find someone who has every right to demand, and yet chooses to find ways she can give, is even better.

It gives us a sneek peek at what the world would look like if we all glanced around and wondered what we could give, instead of what we could get.

The astonishing part of the Stratton story, by the way, is that she doesn’t seem to fully realise just what she is doing. On her YouTube channel she talks of a childhood “surrounded by images of heroes, images of men in capes who save us, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes we cannot be saved from certain circumstances in life…What I needed instead was courage, courage to go out and try, and a true hero is someone who allows you to do this. “

Just by cracking on with life Stratton is allowing others -disabled or not- to see they have something to contribute to the world. She may not realise it, but she already fits her own definition of hero.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

A good society

August 5, 2017

If you are looking for some light reading over the weekend I have a suggestion.

Buried deep within the websites of various news media outlets this week I found a shockingly easy-to-read, terrifyingly informative 50-page report by the Health Committee.

I know, it sounds suspicious. Government reports aren’t easy to read, and they are certainly not very informative most of the time.

Somehow, though, this one is. Perhaps it is to do with the subject matter. You see, the report is on euthanasia laws.

Yes, this week the results of a two-year long investigation, involving a record-smashing 21,000 submissions, 108 hours of oral submissions, and testimony from experts and citizens from faraway lands, landed.

Unfortunately, it landed on the same day that new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was asked about her baby plans. Obviously, that little scuffle was more important than the most significant potential law change facing New Zealanders in years, so the most significant document relating to that most significant potential law change was buried.

Buried under layers, and layers of opinion.

Anyway. The main bit to know is that the Health Committee made no recommendation. It did not recommend in favour, nor did it recommend against, a law change.

The other main bit to know is that 80 per cent of those who submitted were opposed to euthanasia laws being introduced.

But the real juice was in between all of that. It was in the fact that New Zealander’s clearly wore their hearts on their sleeves for this Committee.

There were those who came to talk about their experiences of family suicide, the suffering and death of loved ones, or their own illness or disability. There were plenty of experts from medical groups, palliative care groups, and mental health groups. They shared their thoughts, and also their hearts, on how euthanasia laws would impact their patients and themselves.

The interesting bit, perhaps, was that the reasons Kiwis oppose euthanasia laws were far more diverse and emotional than I realised. Take, for example, those who spoke up saying they were concerned for members of the ” LGBTIQ community, where legally assisted dying might be seen as incongruous with anti-suicide campaigns.” Or, take those who spoke about their own experiences of depression and concerns that euthanasia would have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Euthanasia’s current champion, ACT leader David Seymour, has tried to downplay all the opposition by hinting that the Catholics conspired to tilt the inquiry process. But I have to say, it is rather impossible to hold that view after reading the full document. There are simply too many reasons, with too much humanity in them, to think that opposition to euthanasia laws is mostly institutional.

And that brings me to another point about the report. It is quite fascinating to see all of the arguments for, and against, euthanasia laws laid out right next to each other with international evidence thrown in. You can’t help feeling that compassion belongs to both sides of the argument. But you also can’t help noticing that the arguments basically boiled down to individual rights versus the collective good.

It seems to me that on the one side are people who basically believe that a few mistakes (read: people euthanased against their will) are a fair price to pay for the right to death. On the other side are those who think protecting a few lives is a justifiable reason for foregoing a right.

And that, of course, reveals the question we all must ask ourselves. Which do we value more, rights or lives? Which laws, ultimately, will give us a good, and compassionate, society?

So, if you haven’t already, go and listen to other Kiwis by reading that report. The question is far too important to answer on our own.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz