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‘I feel a strong responsibility to keep pushing’

Jackie Edmond, Family Planning chief executive, reflects on her career as she is honoured with an MNZM

Friday, October 23, 2020

Feature

Today Jackie Edmond, Family Planning’s chief executive, is being recognised for her services to sexual and reproductive health with an MNZM – Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit – in a ceremony at Government House. Jackie has been with Family Planning for 19 years, and chief executive for 12.

As noted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, during that time Jackie has had “significant influence on funding decisions that have resulted in more contraceptive methods being available at no cost and the recent change that saw abortion services moved away from criminal code to provision within the health system”. She has also led the New Zealand delegation to the UN International Conference on Population and Development for a number of years, and was Chair of the Asia Pacific Alliance, a group of organisations working in sexual and reproductive health.

We spoke to Jackie ahead of her investiture to hear more about her career and her achievements, although in true Jackie style she was quick to credit those who have been working alongside her over the years too.

How did you get your start in sexual and reproductive health care?

It was a wee bit of a mistake. I was working in mental health at a District Health Board (DHB), and wanted to work somewhere a bit smaller where I had the ability to make changes, so I applied for Family Planning. I decided against the role and was trying to cancel the interview and I couldn’t get the recruiter, and arrived anyway. I was interviewed by these three lovely women – two board members and the chief executive, Gill Greer – and I thought, ‘Oh this might be quite good’, and I got the job. Nineteen years later I’m still here.

What was that first job?

I was the regional manager for the South Island.

What were some of your early memories?

Just people who were really keen and committed, and people were very welcoming and friendly, and because it was smaller it was a nice place to be because you knew everybody and you could build those personal relationships.

For me, my background in mental health is about rights and human rights, which is in many ways the same as sexual and reproductive health, in the sense of the stigma and challenges, so it was an easy space to transition to.

What were some of the key issues or values of the work you did that were important to you?

I was surprised the day I got the job and I announced it… some people were negative and one person sort of tried to congratulate me, but they didn’t agree with what [Family Planning] did, and I hadn’t even considered that there was a problem with what the organisation did. I guess I’ve always been like that. The main thing for me is the issue of people being able to make their own decisions about their lives – about all parts of their lives, and not just sexual and reproductive health.

What are some of your career highlights?

Being a chief executive of such an amazing organisation with lots of great people and a supportive board, and all they want is to see the organisation do well. That’s been incredibly enjoyable. In terms of other highlights it would be lots of the changes that have happened across services. Things like doing virtual appointments; we’ve established the contact centre; health promotion doing things differently, and more recently doing things online.

Abortion law reform this year has been pretty darn exciting, which is something people like Dame Margaret [Sparrow, who spent her whole career fighting to legalise abortion] have been doing since forever, but as an organisation we’ve been doing forever as well. I think we contributed really positively to that process, and constructively and in our own careful way. Also recently getting the Jadelle and the Mirena subsidised. We did that collegially with other organisations, it wasn’t just us, but we contributed to that work.

We’re the go-to organisation for sexual and reproductive health and rights. If people in government want advice, they come to us. We’re very privileged in New Zealand to have great access to our parliamentarians and through our New Zealand Parliamentarian Group we are very lucky to do that so we can offer our expertise. We get to know people on a personal level in Parliament and that’s super helpful when you’re doing the work that we do.

My biggest downside is the fact that we continue to struggle to get adequate funding to match demand and being equally treated as other primary healthcare providers, so that’s one of our biggest challenges, if you like.

Has there been any particularly memorable days on the job?

Sitting in the house and watching the abortion law reform go through, that was amazing, and watching the parliamentary process, which I had never seen in such detail. It was a real privilege to follow the process from Law Commission review, through Select Committee and then through Parliament. There have been a few bad days this year, but normally it is very good. I’ve also been lucky because I’ve had a number of opportunities to go to the United Nations and be part of the process around enhancing and expanding some of those key international agreements.  

Were you there advocating on a specific issue?

Advocating on comprehensive sexuality education and relationship education; people having access to services, and information about sexual and reproductive health. Stuff that is pretty standard in New Zealand, but in the international context, sexual and reproductive health is a battleground. And it is scary what’s happening. The regard for people to have information and make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health is outstandingly bad, particularly at the moment. The agreement that I spend a lot of time working on, which is the International Conference of Population and Development (ICPD) – which was agreed in the 1990s – if you tried to do that today, you’d never get it agreed to. We’ve gone backwards in terms of having more countries aligned on these issues. But New Zealand’s always been a really consistent contributor in terms of that space and I’m always really proud of New Zealand and what we do.

How does it feel to have your work recognised in this way?

It’s been a bit conflicting because as with everything, there’s lots of people who have done this work, not just me. Everything we’ve achieved has been done in collaboration with other organisations and other work, but it’s nice.

Where do you see Family Planning going in the future?

To keep pushing boundaries, to continue to be a courageous advocate, and to always keep doing the right thing for improving sexual and reproductive health for New Zealanders. And on the international stage, to keep making sure that we protect those rights. We need to keep being connected to the communities that we serve and making sure our services work for them and meet their needs, and keep trying to get good, accessible information out and about, and keep addressing the stigma. Hopefully we’ll get some sustainable increases in funding so that we can continue to keep moving forward and pushing those boundaries. We’ve done incredibly well with no increase, so imagine what we could do if we were funded properly!

It’s a great organisation, and it’s been great for a long, long time. Long before me. All those women [who worked for Family Planning in the early days]. I feel a strong responsibility to keep pushing, because they did all of the heavy lifting actually.

 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

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