‘Big Girls’ celebrate New Zealand’s ethnic diversity

Big GirlsSeventeen ‘larger than life’ women dancing in the streets of Palmerston North caused a sensation at the city’s International Women’s Day Parade on 8 March. 

The Big Girl giant puppets, designed to celebrate diversity in Aotearoa, represented women from a wide range of communities, including Latin America, South East Asia, Syria, Japan and Samoa. Some had been created collectively this year by women in Palmerston North and the Wellington region through workshops run by Rangiwahia Environmental Arts Centre Trust (REACT) and funded by the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.

The Big Girls workshops enable women from all cultures to learn from each other and about each other,” says Bridgette Murphy, Creative Director and Centre Co-ordinator of REACT, which facilitates alternative education spaces promoting artistic expression, lifelong learning, intercultural and intergenerational dialogue.

This included refugee and migrant women learning English through English Language Partners (ELP) Porirua.

“The tutors saw their students in a new light, and found new ways of approaching learning with them,” says Bridgette. “The concept of 'scaffolding' (‘building’ in language terms) was likened to how we built the Big Girls – not only the scaffold of the bamboos and backpacks to support the giant puppets, but also the support that women also gave each other to achieve a united aim, and was used by tutors to help encapsulate learning modules with refugee students.”

Palmerston North is home to over 100 nationalities with 130 languages spoken, and the Big Girls giant puppets highlight the positive contributions these different cultures bring to the city, says Bridgette.

“Locals of Palmerston North were amazed that some of the Porirua-based women who came along included Syrian women who had created their own giant representative. As they led the parade out alongside the Afghani women, I felt the power of these women – not victims as so often portrayed in the media, but real women joining international sisters to celebrate all we are, all we've been through, and all we have to live for.”

Robyn Baker, Chair of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO, says it was highly appropriate that the Big Girls and their creators joined the parade for International Women’s Day. “It is a day to celebrate the extraordinary acts of women and to stand together as a united force to advance gender equality around the world.”

The Big Girls project was one of 13 major grants funded through the National Commission’s UNESCO Contestable Activity Fund (UCAF). The Big Girls also participated in the Newtown Festival and will have a presence at Cuba Dupa.