Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and champion of women’s rights, is no stranger to selfies.
This week in Vancouver, Canada, she’s surrounded by fans at Women Deliver’s 2019 conference on gender equality – and it’s clear that she’s a celebrity. It seems like every few moments, some of the event’s 8,000 attendees – mostly young women — approach her for a photo or stop by to chat.
And with good reason. Clark, 69, has spent years advancing gender equality and encouraging women’s political leadership — and has been an inspiration to women. Besides heading New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, she helmed the U.N. Development Programme until 2017 and was in the running for U.N. Secretary General last year. She now sits on a variety of advisory boards, including those of Women Deliver and the World Economic Forum’s health council.
Clark has also been known for using social media to engage with young people. At the conference, for example, she has been posting photos and videos to Snapchat, a social media platform popular with Generation Z. Her snaps include a Beyonce reference (“Who runs the world?”), a photo of a sunset in Vancouver and a video clip of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking at an event.
NPR talked to Clark about gender issues, being a role model for young women and the power of social media. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are people tired of talking about gender equality? The talk around it has been going on for years.
Well, women aren’t tired because we’re not there yet. In New Zealand last year, we celebrated 125 years of women’s suffrage as the first country in the world where women fought for and won the right to vote. But we still have a pay gap. We have a bad rate of domestic and family violence. We’ve got to get on top of that. There’s still plenty to fight for.
What is one of the biggest obstacles that women face right now?
This issue of some men wanting to control women’s fertility and take away from them the choice [they have] over their own lives, how many children they want, if they want children, when they have them and so on. If you don’t have access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health and rights, you are a disempowered person.
If you could change one thing right now about the inequality that women and girls face in today’s world, what would it be and how would you do it?
That girls complete their education. If you can complete your education, you’re likely to have seen off any attempt to have you forced into an early marriage, into childbearing before you’re ready for it. You will have much more choice and determination over your life. So, education for every girl all the way would be No. 1.
How would you bring education to every girl?
I think technology holds some of the answers in equal access to education. [In] a lot of countries, girls transitioning to and completing secondary education is not easy. [Some schools] don’t necessarily have the provision for it. I was just trekking in remote regions of Nepal, where you have [to get] a scholarship to go to a school that will [only] take you to Grade 10.
I put a lot of hope in distance education because Wi-Fi connectivity is starting to come up in all those valleys [in Nepal]. [Some] schools are starting to get donors putting computer banks with the curriculum loaded on. Add the Wi-Fi, and you can have a teacher anywhere in the country supporting you to complete your further education.
What is the biggest step in the advancement of women that you’ve seen lately?
I was really quite excited by the last U.S. Congressional elections, seeing all those women from the diversity of U.S. society coming into Congress. Some of them are having quite a hard time, but hey, they’re there. They are standing their ground, they’re having a go.
How about on the international scene?
The global scene is challenging at the moment. The raft of populist or authoritarian male leaders who are pushing back on women’s rights [is] problematic. But every reaction gets a counter-reaction, and if that helps mobilize women to say “we’re not going to put up with this.” That’s going to be a good thing.
What do you think about all your young fans?
I’m honored by it, really. That young women would notice I’m around, still fighting, still advocating for causes. I think girls and women are looking for people they can identify with [in the] government. It’s hard to be what you can’t see. I hope I am that sort of role model who [people] think, “Hey, I could do that, I could be that person.”
Maybe it’s all the Snapchatting you’re doing.
Probably the Snapchats.
Sonia Narang is a journalist who covers women’s rights, climate change and health. Follow her on Instagram @sonianarang