This year marks the 125th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement, which gave all women in Aotearoa the right to vote.

Grace Ryu was born in South Korea and arrived in New Zealand in 1997. She is the Operations Manager of the Asian Health Services at Waitemata District Health Board, and is on the ethnic advisory panel for English Language Partners (a Non-Government Organisation for former refugees and migrants). She was recently appointed as a panel member of the Ethnic Community Development Fund.

Grace has been working with the Asian ethnic community for the past 21 years. One of her key priorities is to enhance the health and well-being of our diverse communities. She has had various governance and advisory roles with local government, police, and community services. These roles have enabled her to relay the voices and needs of the community.

What does celebrating suffrage 125 mean to you?

I think it is a significant event for everyone in New Zealand, and women in the world. New Zealand has made major contributions to women’s rights, and is a good global role model for providing women with equal opportunities and increasing participation in political and social areas.

Many countries are still working on incorporating women’s voices in their policies and strategies, but often find obstacles which prevent a more female inclusive social and community environment. There are many examples of countries where women need the permission and accompaniment of males to complete daily tasks.

Having the right to vote gives equal “mana” [respect] to women, and ensures partnership and protection of women’s opinions in the most important parts of political decision-making. This is essential for women’s voices and the foundation for women to be respected equally, and affect positive choices resulting in a better future.

I think Suffrage 125 is also a good reminder for New Zealand to continue advocating for positive changes, where any obstacles for women still exist. New Zealand should be proud of being a global leader for women’s rights.

What inspired you to become an ethnic community leader, and Manager for Asian Health Service?

I had no aspirations to be an ethnic community leader, what I wanted to do is simply support people in need. Asian Health Services has been a unique District Health Board- Asian-based, cultural support service in New Zealand. It is well-known among the migrant and ethnic communities across the country.

Many years ago, as new migrants, there were very little Asian services in New Zealand’s governmental settings.  When Asian Health Services was established it became a place where other governmental agencies and community services were requesting support and advice for their groups. Believing in the importance of these health boards and services to our ethnic communities, I said “yes” to advocate for ethnic voices and their interests.

I was invited to the Ethnic Women’s Leadership Programme, hosted by both the Office of Ethnic Communities and Leadership New Zealand which had a major impact on my professional and personal views. I started my governance experience when I was a single mother with no family. I believe this vulnerable stage in my life made my vision clearer and more real.

Asian Health Services also runs the Waitemata Translation and Interpreting Service (WATIS – 24/7) which has more than 180 interpreters covering over 90 languages and dialects. Having professional connections with our valuable interpreters has always been a good channel for connecting with our diverse community.

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

Our team supports many women with physical and/or mental health conditions through difficult times. Our team is also involved in significant cases of family violence or other domestic abuse. We advocate for victims’ health and safety with strength-based approaches.

We work with Breast Screen Aotearoa to identify access barriers, developing culturally appropriate promotion materials with language support. As a result, we have increased the rate of Asian breast screen enrolment from 43% to 72% [the target was 70%], this is very exciting to see our work making a difference! We often get thank you messages from women who have been supported by us for the early intervention screening. We believe we have saved many lives and changed families.

The majority of health workers are female in the District Health Board sector and their contribution is significant. Many Asian ethnic females are employed in the health sector for vital daily clinical and non–clinical functions. I do appreciate their hard work and high standard work ethic.

What is your message to women from an ethnic background?

If you are a migrant woman, or former refugee, you are amazing!

You have been very brave coming here for a better future.

Be gentle to yourself and others. Remember you are not alone. There is no magic wand making a dramatic change at once for some obstacles in our life, but there are many good people to support you when we show our respect and our genuine views.    

Take one thing at a time. Women can do anything as well as men can. 

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