She’s been frequently called one of the world’s most powerful women. Now former Prime Minister Helen Clark will use her highly-regarded voice to advocate for equal opportunities for women in sport, both in New Zealand and globally.

On UN International Women’s Day, Clark has been named as the new global patron of the International Working Group on Women and Sport (IWG) – while the secretariat is in New Zealand for the next three years – and locally, as the patron of Women in Sport Aotearoa.

Speaking from a remote corner of Central Asia yesterday, Clark said she’d agreed to take on the roles because: “I believe in the power of sport to empower and inspire girls and women”.

“Participation in sport can build confidence and pride, and teamwork skills – all important attributes for success in life,” she said.

The IWG is the largest network in the world dedicated to empowering women and girls and advancing sport. It will hold the world’s most significant conference on gender equity in sport, in Auckland in May 2022, delivered by Women in Sport Aotearoa.

Clark has always had a passion for sport. At school, she played tennis and netball; she’s still an active hiker and cross-country skier.

Throughout her time as leader of the Labour Party, she was patron of New Zealand Rugby League. During her 27 years in parliament, she was patron of Mt Albert Rugby League and a number of local bowling clubs.

Today, she’s patron of Emirates Team New Zealand and the Pisa Alpine Charitable Trust, which operates the Snow Farm cross-country ski field near Wanaka.

New Zealand’s first elected female Prime Minister, Clark has been a vocal advocate for the empowerment of women throughout her career. During her eight years as head of the United Nations Development Programme, she promoted the rights of women, and lifted the ratio of women to men at the UNDP to 50 percent.

Clark has just formed the Group of Women Leaders for Change and Inclusion, with other former UN female colleagues. Last week, she lent her name to an open letter – one of 26 female world leaders – calling for a fightback against the erosion of women’s rights around the globe. 

She says she’s been encouraged by the New Zealand government’s new Strategy for Women and Girls in Sport, and the efforts of some New Zealand sports to achieve equity.

“Women’s participation in sport has generally not received the level of attention, coverage, and financial support which men’s participation has,” Clark says.

“Yet New Zealand Football is an example of a code which has shown that it’s possible to reach gender parity, with its new collective bargaining agreement giving the Football Ferns parity with the All Whites in pay, prizemoney, rights for image use, and travel support as New Zealand representatives.”

New Zealand co-chair of the IWG, Raewyn Lovett, says the organisation is “so grateful” that Clark accepted the invitation to be patron.

“She’s everything we would look for in a patron, in terms of her international profile, her values and how they align with ours around gender equity and equality, and all that she’s already done in that area,” she says.

Clark will be an “active” patron, Lovett says, in particular hosting functions overseas to raise awareness of the IWG’s work.

“We’ve asked her to be active in the role, not just a figurehead. She will be contributing,” Lovett says. “One of the reasons she’s ideal for the role is her reputation internationally. She’s really well-placed to help us lift the profile of IWG internationally.”

Clark says her plan is to “help increase awareness and engagement across sport, government, business and media, both in New Zealand and abroad”. 

Helen Clark with Silver Ferns captain Julie Seymour after New Zealand beat Barbados for the Fisher & Paykel Plate in 2002. Photo: Getty Images. 

It’s a little over three years until Auckland hosts the IWG World Conference on May 5-8, at the still-to-be-completed New Zealand International Convention Centre. Over 1,500 global experts in gender equity in sport and physical activity are expected to attend.

The IWG works to bring attention to the important issues facing women and girls in sport. It’s in partnership with world agencies such as UN Women, UNESCO and WHO, to drive awareness and support positive change.

Now that a global executive team has been appointed, IWG is working on its strategy for what it wants to achieve for women in sport in New Zealand over the next few years, with the results then showcased at the 2022 conference.

“We want to make sure that this conference has some really practical outputs for women and girls in sport. We want to walk away with good material, and good ideas that can be put into practice here, and globally,” Lovett says.

One of the issues that the IWG is certain to develop is safety for women and girls in sport.

“That topic has really resonated with the executive. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world where safety and well-being isn’t important,” Lovett says.

“Safety covers such a wide range of things –like physical safety in sport, where in some countries that’s not something you can take for granted. It’s around cultural issues that some countries face around women and girls being involved in sport. And through to athlete welfare generally.

“It’s become very topical here in New Zealand right now, and we need to take it right down to the participation level. Safety is a fundamental driver to a good participation experience in sport.”

Rachel Froggatt, the CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa and IWG secretary general, says the mission is to see the legacy of the IWG not only helping women and girls in New Zealand, but also across Oceania.

“While there’s work we want to get done here in New Zealand, it’s also about how we can support and grow opportunities for women and girls in sport across the Pacific nations. That’s a big piece of our legacy work,” she says.

Froggatt and Professor Sarah Leberman, co-chair of Women in Sport Aotearoa, leave tomorrow for the United Nations Headquarters in New York to attend the Commission on the Status of Women session. (The esteemed commission first met in 1947 soon after the founding of the United Nations).

Leberman will speak at a parallel event, with five of the world’s leaders in gender equity in sport – such as Nancy Lee, head of the Gender Equality Review project for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has just released its recommendations to advance gender equality in sport.

“Sarah was invited to speak on the role of Women in Sport Aotearoa as an advocacy and research agency, and the key role it played in the government’s Strategy for Women and Girls in Sport,” Froggatt says.  

“And how Women in Sport Aotearoa won the secretariat for the IWG, and its intent to create sustainable change, and making sure the changes that we make now leave a lasting legacy for generations.”

Froggatt will meet with “some of the most significant movers and shakers in gender equity” – including UN Women, UNESCO and the IOC – to share the IWG’s vision and strategy.

“The reach is massive in terms of who you can make contact with,” she says. “Given the IWG’s focus is around gender equity in sport for the purpose of equality in society, it’s a really important place for us to be.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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