Suffrage 125 Spotlight: Vanisa Dhiru

Vanisa Dhiru

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement. This month, we celebrate suffrage month, as we remember the signing of the petition that worked towards the passing of the Electoral Act 1893, giving all women in New Zealand the right to vote.

Vanisa Dhiru was born and raised in Palmerston North, and is the current President of the National Council of Women New Zealand (NCWNZ).

During her career, she has held Chief Executive Officer (CEO) roles in the Non-Governmental Organisation sector - including CEO of Volunteering New Zealand, Executive Director of the 20/20 Trust, and Acting General Manager of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) New Zealand. She is currently working at Internet New Zealand as the Manager of Community Programmes.

In her career in the community and voluntary sector, she has been part of 12 different boards and committees - in areas of youth development, cultural relations, fair trade, and equality. She has chaired Inspiring Stories Trust for four years, and the YWCA Greater Wellington board for three years.

She is a proud member of Global Women New Zealand, the Institute of Directors, SuperDiverse Women, the Wellington Indian Association, Asia New Zealand Foundation, and the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Global Network.

What does celebrating suffrage 125 mean to you?

This year is a chance to stop and celebrate a world first held by Aotearoa, women gaining the vote.

NCWNZ was established by prominent leaders of New Zealand’s suffrage movement to plan how to use the vote they’d just won for women. They needed to continue to build understanding and drive action to improve the lives of women.

Now that I’m following the footsteps of NCWNZ’s founding President, Kate Sheppard, and other prominent suffragists from Aotearoa's history I feel both proud and sad.

Since 1893, there have been positive shifts in rights for women and gender diverse people, led by many New Zealand community groups and individuals. NCWNZ has been at the forefront of many campaigns, submissions, and activity to help fight for change.

However, we are not there as yet. Where Aotearoa once led in gender equality, we have slipped to be ranked at 9th in the world.

We have some terrible statistics in this country. Family violence, poverty, suicide, affordable housing, and mental health are few of these areas. Our fight for equal pay, equitable justice sector outcomes, better access to health, education, gender balanced decision makers... these fights all still continue.

What inspired you to become a community leader, and President of the National Council of Women New Zealand?

Over 10 years ago, I applied and was accepted into a leadership course with 60 young people from around the country, aged 18-25. We were tasked to think about what we would do - essentially, what we would do to change the world. At the time, I was on the board of the YWCA Greater Wellington, and I saw the very grassroots work we did for young women across the region. This experience made me become passionate about working in, for, and alongside communities. I set a goal - to be a General Manager or CEO by the time I was 35 years old. Short of my 30th birthday I landed my first CEO role, with Volunteering NZ. This gave me the exposure to hundreds of grassroots and national organisations, networks, and causes. It was in this role when I joined the National Council of Women’s board, after being a member of them through the YWCA since 2007.

A group of wonderful women leaders in the community suggested someone join the NCW board... and so I put my hand up and went for it. I had no plans at that stage to be the President, I just thought I had something to offer, would bring diversity and new thinking.

After five years on the board, it felt right to take the challenge on in 2017. So here I am - the first under 40 year old ethnic non-academic President this organisation has seen in the 122 years we have been in existence. I’m also the youngest NCW President of any country in the world!

How have you seen women benefit from the work you have been involved with?

Absolutely! The work of the National Council of Women now more than ever is relevant to women - it’s now relevant to women and girls, men and boys, and anyone of any other gender as well.

It’s time for all of us to question the status quo.

Getting rid of the norms that cause gendered violence, pay inequality, the devaluing of caregiving work and parenting, and inequalities in leadership positions – just to name a few outcomes – would change our world for the better.

If we could break down rigid expectations around gender, we’d create more room for everyone - regardless of their gender. Read more about our work

What is your message to women from an ethnic background?

While your background, accent, ethnicity, culture, or skin colour might be different to others around you - never forget who you are and your roots.

It is Kate Sheppard’s famous quote that should empower us all to help fight stereotypes, “All that separates, whether race, creed, class, sex is inhuman, and must be overcome.”