Gillian Greer

by Mary Fenwick / 09 April, 2011
The quietly authoritative Kiwi fights for women's health on an international stage.

Raised: Rotorua
Role: Director general, International Planned Parenthood Federation
Resides: Tower Bridge, London

Gill Greer runs one of the world’s largest organisations, with more “service delivery points” than McDonald’s. Hers has 58,000 service ­centres, but no golden arches. At the suggestion that, as a Kiwi, her global impact is on a par with that of Sir Don McKinnon or Helen Clark, Greer frowns – “hmm, that’s pretty grand company”. But when I speak to her in London she’s preparing to address the United Nations; the following week she is named as one of 100 stand-out people who have delivered for women globally – alongside names like Queen Rania of Jordan, Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Not a bad pair of accomplishments.

For the past five years Greer has been director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. It’s not a name that trips off the tongue, even by its abbreviation – IPPF – but the federation is second only to the International Red Cross in its health work, in its case sexual health.

There’s the rub. The 153 member organisations of the IPPF are the world’s leading providers of sexual and reproductive health services.

“To me, there’s an absolute paradox that we use sex to sell everything, but we cannot talk about it in a calm way,” says Greer, in a quiet, authoritative voice, removing her black-rimmed glasses to give me the full force of her warmth and charm. How we all actually got here is something to celebrate. Why do we make it something so terrible? It’s the same with the irony of maternal mortality and morbidity: pregnancy should be something to celebrate, wherever it happens, but all too often it’s the cause of despair and disability and death. That’s so wrong.”

Greer has a teaching and academic background, which means she can hold killer statistics in her head: how the HIV epidemic affects women – “under the age of 25, 75% of those infected are girls”; on maternal death – “a woman dies every minute”; and on abortion – “in some countries 40% of maternal mortality, of deaths, are because of unsafe, illegal abortion”. But her main interest is in making policy that accepts the reality of people’s lives. “It’s so obvious. You may not like the reality, but if the reality is that young people are sexually active, do you want them to have good lives? Do you want them to be happy? Or do you want them to have HIV, chlamydia or cervical cancer? No? So let’s make sure we can stop that. And let’s make sure that at the same time we encourage them to be responsible. Life’s messy; it’s not going to change.”

The messiness and unpredictability of life is something she knows well. The young Gillian Greer was the granddaughter of missionaries on both sides, and spent her early childhood in Malaysia, flying home to boarding school in New Zealand. For 20 years she taught secondary school English literature, while developing her own interest in New Zealand writers, specifically Robin Hyde and Katherine Mansfield, and doing a PhD.

In 1988, Greer began a decade-long stint on the staff at Victoria University, first as liaison officer, then director of student services, before becoming assistant vice-chancellor in charge of equity. Then a career change: she became New Zealand executive director of Family Planning, moving to London in 2006 for the international role.

“The whole thing has been about how do you help people reach their full potential? I always joke I won’t talk about Mansfield or Hyde today unless I can talk about how their lives would have been different if family planning had existed. “This job is entirely about people’s potential. I mean, why is it that young women everywhere don’t have the same choices? Some have no choice, no voice. Our job is to try to make sure they do have. My job, in particular, is to raise the money so that people on the ground can do the work, and to persuade governments that it makes no sense to ignore half your population’s health and well-being when they have a human right to it, and they can contribute.”

Her focus has consistently been those with fewer opportunities. “When I started teaching, I think there was one woman law student at Auckland. Then, by the time I went to Vic, it was first-generation students, students with disabilities, Maori, and the whole issue of gay and lesbian rights and diversity in the student ­population.” Diversity is an issue of which Greer has abundant personal experience. She is a doting grandmother who’s completely at ease discussing the right way to put on a condom; she’s also a former corporate wife who spent years being a dutiful mother in Khandallah; she is now happily in a civil union with New Zealand playwright Lorae Parry.

“People just don’t fit into the boxes we want to put them into, and I’m one of those people. Not easy initially for my family, a bit challenging probably to a lot of my friends, to me again it seems entirely straightforward. I was married for 14 years. I have two wonderful children, four wonderful grandchildren. If you had ever said to me when I was a 21-year-old marrying my husband that one day I’d be in a relationship with a woman, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.

“I don’t make a lot of song and dance about the fact that I live with Lorae, and we have a civil union. There would be a number of countries where I wouldn’t take her, because it would be unsafe. But it’s the same thing as with sex work, it’s the same thing as with abortion. Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it happening, it just drives it underground.

“It’s the same around issues of sexual orientation. I said to our director in ­Tunisia, ‘Men in your region have been having sex with men for centuries: we just need to deal with it.’” For Greer, and her organisation, sexual rights are derived from human rights. “There is nothing that says ‘everyone has a right to health – except blondes or except gays or except people with disabilities’. There are no non-people. If it says everyone, it means everyone.” She finds cause for hope in the promise – made by a British coalition government minister with whom she recently shared a speaking platform – of putting women at the centre of development spending, tapping into, as the Chinese put it, their power to “hold up half the sky”.

“Women can drive development. They can drive adaptation to climate change.” The key is investment in girls’ education, so that “they will have children later, they will have fewer children, the children will be healthier, better educated, better fed. You get into this virtuous cycle. Even in countries where women are legally entitled to the same pay for the same work, they are invariably paid less and the law is not policed. And one of the reasons that fathers do not invest in their daughters and men will not let their wives work is that there is no point because they are paid so little. If that alone were to change then those so-called cultural attitudes would also change, because money talks.”

Greer wonders whether it’s time to coin a new word for feminism, now almost the most taboo f-word. Yet, she notes, the UN invited her to speak as a feminist, working for a feminist organisation. “Would my daughter call herself a feminist? I don’t know. It’s a conversation we need to have.” Perhaps “type 2 feminist” says it. It’s ironic, Greer says, when “the heady days of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s kind of passed me by. I was at home, writing a book in my spare time, bringing up two small children and doing my teacher’s diploma by distance. Occasionally, I would lift my head up and realise the world was changing.

“My ex-husband, who is still a good friend, said he should have known the end was coming when I put Shirley Conran’s tea-towel on the kitchen wall, saying ‘life is too short to stuff a mushroom’. I’ve been told ‘the only reason you’ve succeeded is that you get on well with men’. That was by a woman, a radical feminist. I took umbrage. We’re all yin and yang to varying degrees. There is still a lot of work to do for feminism. If that word isn’t going to work then we need to find a new one.”

The intersection between personal and political has been challenging in Greer’s own life. Her phone number has not been listed for years, and “a lovely guy in the bank the other day said ‘I wouldn’t look yourself up on Google if I were you’.” But by approaching the challenges of the role logically, she keeps herself calm.

“There are 1.75 billion young people. The largest generation of young people the world has ever seen. If only 17% of sexually active young people use contraception, the implications of that for them, for their health, their families, their communities, their countries, and eventually for the globe need to be very carefully thought about.

“The majority of young people live in developing countries, and we know that most of them want to have fewer children than their parents did. But they do not have the means to do so. I get probably less calm when people talk about themselves as pro-life. My response to that is – I’m pro-life, I just happen to be pro the woman’s life, and I believe if she has the ability to make a safe legal choice as early as possible in her pregnancy, that’s saving her life.

“It’s that straightforward. If she’s there, the children will be well looked after, her family will flourish, the community will flourish.” Greer has six months more in which to get the message across. When she leaves the job after that time, she’s looking forward to having more time for her personal life, and perhaps developing a New Zealand-based global consulting business.

“I left New Zealand with two small grandchildren, I’ll go home with four. I’ve kind of missed a lot of that time, so I don’t want to do the same with the two little ones. I want to write my book on sex and politics. I started it when Bush was in power, and if I don’t hurry up and do it, Sarah Palin will be there, instead.”
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