Movers and shakers: women’s stories from the Christchurch earthquakes

Disasters Women Pasifika New Zealand Christchurch (NZ)

This paper tells stories of the Christchurch earthquakes and the aftermath, involving community action, health, housing, insurance woes, families, children and many other themes.


How did this project come to be? Well, without the earthquakes there would be no project, so we might blame the earth-moving gods. On the 22nd April 2014, the Canterbury Quake Live website noted that there had been 14,083 felt earthquakes since the first ‘big’ one occurred early in the morning of 4 September 2010. Everyone in Christchurch has been affected in some way since that first major quake.

At the National Council of Women’s first Christchurch meeting after the devastating 22 February 2011 earthquake, members raised questions about the need to record women’s experiences of the quakes and their aftermath. At the time, the media was full of recovery, demolition and rebuilding stories, but there was not much about looking after ageing parents, getting children to relocated schools across crumbling roads, or trying to juggle increased family and work responsibilities.

The NCWNZ Christchurch Branch responded to these concerns by setting up a small committee, which came to be known as the Post-Earthquake Strategy Team, or PEST. This committee met a few times, usually on the weekends, and this research project is the largest and most enduring outcome of that group’s work.

The Women’s Voices Research Committee took on the task of recording a range of women’s earthquake stories. We were aware of material written about earthquakes during 1800s in the region, but these records, while tantalising, were disappointingly short. We thought that, through recording the earthquake stories of Christchurch women, we could create a much more detailed and lasting record of these quakes.

Over thirty women volunteered to be trained to interview other women about their quake experiences. At training workshops they interviewed one another about their earthquake experiences. Their stories are available in the NCWNZ Women’s Voices archive on UC CEISMIC as ‘interviewer profiles’. This report draws on these stories as well as those of the women they interviewed.

At the start of the project we attempted to record the stories of women in different parts of the city, of different ages, involved in different forms of work, and in different family arrangements. A student researcher interviewed ten younger women, many of them active in organisations that sprung up in response to the quakes. We interviewed politicians, a school principal, an opera singer, the Mayor’s partner, civil defence specialists, a funeral director, teachers (quite a few!), GPs, nurses, lawyers, an architects, engineers, a hairdresser, a factory supervisor, a fitness instructor, small business owners, an artist, a real estate agent, a journalist and many others. They were identified through NCWNZ networks, via snowballing (someone we interviewed suggested someone else) and through people known to interviewers. Sometimes women found out about the project and volunteered to be interviewed.

After completing over 80 interviews between late 2011 and 2012, we decided that we needed to record the stories of women living in eastern Christchurch, especially women who were struggling financially, who had children with special needs or children who were stressed as a result of the quakes. We also wanted to record the stories of more Māori women as well as more Pasifika women and new immigrants. Ōtautahi Māori Women’s Welfare League and PACIFICA representatives worked with the research team to ensure that this goal was achieved. The project became - Women’s Voices/ Ngā Reo O Ngā Wahine.

This interest in extending the range of women who were interviewed and especially women living in the eastern suburbs most affected by the quakes, led to the second stage of the project – Women’s Unheard Voices. As a result, another 45 earthquake stories were recorded between mid-2013 and early 2014 with women living in social housing, rental accommodation or badly damaged owner-occupier homes in suburbs like New Brighton, Wainoni, Aranui, Avondale, Avonside, Bromley, Bexley, Waltham, Phillipstown and Woolston. Their stories have been combined with those interviewed in 2011-12 in this report.

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