Friday, 17 October 2008

Election Survey: Anjum Rahman (Labour)

Our own Anjum Rahman is the fourth Labour candidate off the blocks, after her colleagues Jordan Carter, Paul Chalmers and Hamish McCracken. Anjum is a list only candidate for Labour, at number 61, and not only blogs here at The Hand Mirror but also keeps up her own blog, Kiwi Stargazer. And she didn't take part in writing the questions, as she knew she'd have to answer them sooner or later!

The Questions & Answers
The answers I’ve given below are my own personal views, and some do depend on ideal economic conditions and a healthy majority of centre-left parties in parliament. But hey, we should have ambitious goals, even if we know it’ll take a while to get there.

Question 1. What do you believe is currently the single biggest issue facing New Zealand women, and how would you like to address it if you are elected?
The issue that commonly affects the majority of women is work-life balance. There are considerable pressures for women to be in the workforce and to be successful. Some of these are financial pressures; some are cultural, particularly the current consumer culture. At the same time, on average, women take on a greater share of the unpaid work of caring for their families. This puts a lot of pressure on women, particularly in terms of the time they have for themselves and their families. It doesn’t help that New Zealand workers are working much longer hours than workers overseas.

Many things have already been done to address this problem, such as the new flexible-working-hours laws; the Working for Families package, which gives women greater financial security and therefore the option of working less if they want to; raises to the minimum wage; and help with child care. However, more changes could be made.

One area that hasn’t been considered is the loss of the 40-hour working week and overtime rates for those who work longer hours. This would be a way to reduce the pressure of working longer hours. Probably difficult to put in place in the current environment, but if we really go into a recession, this will provide more jobs as well as having social benefits.

Question 2. New Zealand women are paid, on average, over $300 a week less than men, and the difference is worse for Maori and Pacific Island women. What do you propose as a first step towards closing the gender pay gap?
Another thing we lost with the Employment Contracts Act in the 1990’s was award rates. In those days, everyone in an organisation knew what others were being paid. The consequence of having salaries kept secret is that more employers are able to discriminate between workers on the basis of gender or race. During a recent visit to New Plymouth, this issue was brought to my attention on the basis of race, where recent Asian immigrants were being paid significantly less to do the same job but were afraid to take action for fear of losing their job and hence their residency status.

While I’m not suggesting we go back to the full award system, I would advocate a requirement for wage and salary rates to be made public. This would provide the opportunity for employees to properly compare one employer with another prior to accepting a position (in terms of the fairness of pay rates across their employees). It would also allow every employee within an organisation to be aware of discrimination in pay rates, and employers would have to justify differences on the basis of performance.

Question 3. Do you think NZ's current approach to reproductive rights (abortion, contraception etc) is correct? (Yes or No or No Answer, please)
If not, what changes would you want to make?
We must ensure greater uniformity of services throughout the country, both in terms of access and process. A balance must be reached between ensuring that women aren’t rushing the decision to have an abortion without having fully through the consequences, and unnecessarily delaying the procedure. I would want to ensure that women have full information about the options available, to allow an informed choice. They should also have the opportunity to talk to a sympathetic and independent third party, such as a counsellor, to ensure they are not being pressured to have an abortion. This process should not take longer than a couple of weeks. Once a decision has been made to go ahead, the procedure should be carried out as soon as possible.

I would also advocate stronger intervention for those women who have more than one abortion, probably in the form of more education on contraceptive methods and some relationship counselling.

Question 4. The police and the courts do not work in preventing violence against women. What other government actions would you take to ensure women can live without fear.
The recent Ministry of Justice consultation document provides some options for changes to the legal system, and I support the submission of the Hand Mirror regarding changes required to consent laws and rape shield laws. I also agree with the submission in regards to the importance of education at all levels (particularly in secondary school), and the need for people to be having conversations about power dynamics within relationships.

One of the main requirements for these proposed changes is a government with the strength and will to make the required changes in the face of what is likely to be severe resistance by certain groups. The Labour Government has taken strong stances in the past, and over time, those changes have been shown to be successful.

Increasing the number of women in the police force will also have an impact. The current Minister of Police already requires the Police Commissioner to regularly report to her on the gender balance in the police force, and that must continue. The result will be the development of an organisational culture and structures where women are encouraged to join and stay in the police force.

Too many women are reluctant to report instances of abuse. Currently, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has commissioned research in this area, and hopefully some recommendations will be forthcoming. The Task Force for Action on Sexual Violence is due to report later this year, and I look forward to reading their findings. There is certainly a major problem with the way complainants of sexual violence and assault are treated, as was seen with the Louise Nicholas case and the recent incident involving players in the English rugby team. Public vilification of the (alleged) victim both prior to and during a trial are a significant deterrent to making a complaint. Undue publicity given to false complaints are also a deterrent. I’m not sure how to fix these problems, but it’s certainly an area which should receive an urgent focus.

Question 5. Those who do the caring work in our society, paid and unpaid, are often the least recognized and the lowest paid, and they work the longest hours. What do you see as the priority to address these issues for those caring for our sick, our elderly and our children?
The most effective measure in this area is to ring-fence funding for salaries, as is done for teachers’ salaries in the education system (and shows why bulk-funding for schools is such a terrible idea). This would ensure that last year’s increases in Government funding to the aged care sector would actually pass through to employees. A career structure for workers in aged care should be developed, and there should be a minimum carer to patient ratio.

Changes to the early childhood sector, particularly in terms of educational requirements and the 20 hours free early childhood education policy, are great moves made by this government to increase the value of this work. Further work is however needed for playcentres and kohanga reo, and this is where the policy focus should now be.

Question 6. The Ministry of Health has recently launched a campaign to encourage breastfeeding and is now recommending that babies be breastfeed to at least one year old. What do you think the government could do to ensure that every woman who wants to breast feed can?
The recent changes to employment laws requiring compulsory breaks is great step in the right direction. It would also be useful to gradually increase the number of weeks paid parental leave is available so that over a number of years, we could move to six months of paid parental leave. I’d also like to see greater support for mothers in the first week after birth, as establishing breastfeeding is difficult for many women. That support would probably best be provided through the Plunkett system, with more on-call assistance available until breastfeeding has been established.

Question 7. What single measure do you think our political organizations could take to better encourage young women to be involved and take on leadership positions in our communities?
There isn’t a “single” measure because this is a complex issue. The reasons for non-involvement are varied. First the culture our women leaders work in is difficult, with gender-based attacks, most often on their appearance. Our women leaders have had to collectively face negative attacks (eg “femocracy”, “feminazi lesbian sisterhood”) which not only undermines their achievements, but also their ability to be role-models. Political parties can ensure that such remarks are not tolerated within the party organisation. Thankfully, that is already the case within Labour, where women’s contributions are valued and respected.

Another issue is the adversarial nature of politics, which requires a particularly aggressive approach that many women don’t feel comfortable with. It would help to move to more collaborative structures, and MMP is a step in the right direction, in that it requires collaboration and negotiation between parties to achieve positive outcomes. Any threat to MMP will adversely impact the participation of women in central government politics.

Political organisations need to make themselves relevant to women, by raising and discussing issues that are of importance to women. In Labour, we’ve done this by having a strong women’s sector, a strong women’s caucus, and plenty of encouragement and support from the men in our organisation.

Finally, I’m a strong believer in mentors. It’s always helpful when successful women leaders in organisations provide support and encouragement to other women, which encourages them to participate.

Question 8. Do you see domestic violence as an issue for women, for men, or for all New Zealanders? (Women, or Men, or all New Zealanders please) If elected, what strategies would you like to pursue to eliminate domestic violence?
All New Zealanders.
The current media campaign led by the Families Commission is extremely good and very effective. Further work can be done, as mentioned in my answer to question 4, regarding education about power in relationships and the teaching of negotiation skills.

More should be done to draw links between alcohol/drugs and violence. The current media campaign doesn’t draw these links strongly enough. Also, I’d like to see more famous faces involved in such campaigns, particularly men who other men would look up to as successful and high achievers.

Finally, I strongly believe that we should support men who commit violence. We need to give them a way out of their violent relationship in a way that encourages them to want to change. Vilification and punitive responses are not particularly helpful. Often, the violence is linked to low self-esteem (which is made worse by the violence), or other mental health issues. That’s why the line “it’s OK to ask for help” in the current campaign is such a powerful message, and I would like to see adequate funding put towards supporting those who do ask for help.

Question 9. Successive governments have effectively cut the Domestic Purposes Benefit. Do you believe people raising children alone should have sufficient financial support from the state so that they do not need to go to work until they believe that is the best choice for their family? (Yes or No or No Answer, please)
Yes. This is an important way to value parenting, and to ensure that all children have adequate food, clothing, education and housing. It’s a small price to pay, if it means we have healthier and happier children who will become happy and healthy adults.

Question 10. Women do the vast majority of cooking and shopping, and increases in food prices are a burden borne disproportionately by women. What do you think our government can or should do to ensure that everyone has access to good food?
We could hand out free vegetable seeds and compost for grow-your-own backyard gardens, and require every new tree planted by any city council to be a fruit tree.

But seriously (well, I was half-serious before), the best way to make good food affordable is to raise real incomes, by raising the minimum wage and strengthening the bargaining position of employees. Also, it’s important to stimulate economic growth when there is an economic downturn, to keep unemployment down and to minimise the impact on those at the bottom-end. So, yes, sound economic management with debt reduction during the good years and increased activity in the bad years does help us to access good food.

Question 11. Do you have any further comments that you wish to make about the role of women in our society? Please feel free to share your thoughts here.
I’m particularly concerned about the increasing objectification of women and the way women are portrayed in the media (especially advertising and music videos). I believe this has a negative impact on the self-confidence of women. I’d like to see more positive portrayal of women as role-models, and one way to do this is through creative arts. More support for women writers, directors and song-writers would be really nice, particularly when they celebrate women’s achievements.

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