NAIROBI ICPD MEETING

Former New Zealand PM praises Kenya's declining population

The former PM says the controversy over gay people is a question of Kenyans facing reality and coming out of denial.

In Summary

•Clark speaks exclusively to the Star on family planning, declining population and her support for gay rights

•Predicts Kenyans will soon look back and wonder what the fuss about gay people was all about

Helen Clark is board chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health
EXCLUSIVE: Helen Clark is board chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health
Image: JOHN MUCHANGI

During her tenure as Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark realised that public opinion can change fast.

At one time, she earned the wrath of some conservatives when her government supported same-sex civil unions. 

“That was very hotly contested but it then became such a non-issue in a period of a few years,” she says.

 

Soon, the country’s parliament overwhelmingly voted to allow same-sex marriages.

Well-known for her political dexterity, Clark was New Zealand’s first elected female Prime Minister from 1999 to 2008, and became the head of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017.

In July, she was appointed chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, a global alliance hosted by the World Health Organization, which campaigns for universal access to high-quality reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health care.

The former PM is in Nairobi to attend the International Conference on Population and Development.

On Saturday, she spoke exclusively to the Star on a range of issues from financing for family planning, Kenya’s declining population growth and her support for gay rights. 

Clark said she was last week fascinated by the political anger over Kenya’s declining population growth rate.  

“These large families are neither the choice of the woman nor the choice of the man. They happen because there was no access to contraception or knowledge,” she says.

 

“All countries as they develop see a decline in population growth. It’s a function of development. We are more healthy, we offer more services, women can access those services, and plan their families.” 

Clark, 69, comes from a large family. “My grandmother was one of 11 children, my grandfather one of 11. There were huge families before there was family planning; before women had education or choice.

“Then you come down one generation and my father was the second of six, I am one of four. Now the average family size in New Zealand is two,” she told the Star.

However, donor funding for family planning in Kenya is dropping and by 2025 the government will have to fully foot the bill.

Calrk says as a middle-income country, Kenya must now increase domestic financing because donor funding will slowly move to the lower-income countries.

“Clearly, there are still areas where Kenya will benefit from partner funding, for example through Global Fund, through Pepfar, but yes it’s a question for Kenya to ensure this is prioritized in its own budget,” she said.

Clark laid out her strategy for her two-year term at PMNCH.

“For me, there’s the unmet need for family planning; we also have unfinished business on maternal mortality from the Millennium Development Goals. We still have women dying from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth. Then you have gender violence affecting women’s health and access to the full range of services,” she said. 

The former PM - who is married to Peter Davis - has been unequivocal in her support for gay rights.

Last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta warned the gay agenda was unwelcome in Kenya during the ICPD.

But Clark predicts Kenyans will soon look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. “This is a journey many countries have been on,” she said.

New Zealand decriminalised male homosexuality in 1984 through a private members bill which Clark, as a young MP, supported.

As the Prime Minister, she strongly supported civil-union rights for same-sex couples. It was a hotly contested but after a few years Parliament voted overwhelmingly for gay marriage.

“So in my experience, public opinion can move quite fast,” she says. The former PM says it’s a question of people facing reality and coming out of denial.