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The Hunger Project: 'Let's end world poverty'

Lisa Gunnery (49) empowers women in poverty.

I’m originally an American girl from Connecticut in the USA but I fell in love with New Zealand when I first arrived to take up a job opportunity in 1999. Apart from a few years in Germany, I’ve been a Kiwi ever since.
When I was due to leave school, my mother found me a job in health insurance and it became my passion. Health matters change constantly, with new developments in drugs and treatments requiring different approaches to making sure that people are covered. I always enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with those changes and found I was very good at it – I quickly advanced to the top.
In 2014, when I was working for Sovereign Insurance in Auckland, they sent a group of 20 of us to India as part of a leadership programme. What I saw and experienced there affected me profoundly. I simply had no idea that such utter poverty existed or that there were women who only knew a life of terrible struggles and inequality.
Like most of us, I took running water, electricity and sanitation for granted but in poor parts of India, even something as ordinary as going to the toilet is a major issue because many homes or even villages don’t have them.
Women are only allowed to “go” – out in a field – twice a day, at dawn and dusk, and it’s dangerous as there are snakes and other wild creatures around. Technically they are trespassing and are very vulnerable to assault by local males as well.
Hearing this just horrified me and I realised straight away that I needed to play my part in helping to make changes. The Hunger Project provided the perfect means of doing that.
Lots of charities these days work on the basis of not making actual donations of cash or goods but rather, they’re funding the process of setting up a framework within which people are able to empower themselves and achieve sustainable, long-term outcomes. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense.
India is one of many developing countries the Hunger Project has taken on since 1977. It has a caste system so the gap between rich and poor can be enormous. The poor often don’t realise that it is within their capabilities to bring about improvements for themselves. For example, the government will arrange electricity or sanitation for a village if they are asked.
We help train women to get to the correct agency and request what they need. They become leaders in their own society and as things start to happen, their confidence grows. Many of them can’t read or write but when they all pool their other skills and attributes the results can be remarkable.
In one town, which didn’t have a medical centre, we got behind a group of people and aided them in setting one up. The newly-formed village council got permission to repurpose an unused government building and found some chairs and desks.
They applied for a doctor and although it took a year or so, there’s one there now and he’s seeing over sixty people a day. Now they’re building on a second storey and they hope to get some beds for it so that surgery will be possible.
The wonderful thing is that a young mother in labour no longer needs to walk for miles looking for medical care. I saw an old man waving his stick in triumph at the thought of actually seeing a doctor!
Another area where progress is being made slowly in India – and in neighbouring Bangladesh – is around the issue of child brides. Many young girls are still getting married at 12 years old and having children practically straight away.
We’re gradually helping our Hunger Project leaders to educate families about the benefits of waiting longer – both in terms of the girls’ personal safety and in reducing the birth rate. These countries just have too many people and there aren’t enough resources to go around.
Sovereign Insurance were very good to me when I said I wanted to devote time to the charity and they created a unique year-long role within the company to help me get started.
When I gave up work completely to devote my time to raising awareness of the Hunger Project and fundraising to support their efforts, my partner Jonathan (49) was completely behind me as was our daughter Kate (9) and Jonathan’s daughter Olivia, who is 14.
It’s been interesting seeing their attitude to what I do and I think that my enthusiasm must have rubbed off because both girls are committed to helping in any way they can. Kate has little toy sales and contributes the takings. One by one, all the little things really add up.”
Quick fire
I am reading... Dr Libby’s Women’s Wellness Wisdom.
I would like to be remembered as... Someone who truly gave back – and as a good mother.
If I won Lotto, I would... Give a great deal of it to the Hunger Project – naturally! www.thp.org.nz.
As told to Louise Richardson
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