When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently visited a primary school in Tonga with UNICEF, which provided tents and school supplies after the devastating Cyclone Gita, she was heartbroken.
But it also made her even more determined to improve the lives of children in her country and around the world.
"To see children sitting in makeshift spaces for learning, with devastation all around them, classrooms without roofs ... it was a heart-wrenching but encouraging scene," she said in an impassioned speech at the 2018 Social Good Summit in New York City on Sunday.
"Learning was still happening, and plans were already in place to rebuild again."
Ardern, who is in New York this week to attend the United Nations General Assembly alongside other world leaders, is no stranger to the resilience of children. Previously working for an international youth organization, she often visited displaced and refugee children.
“Perhaps that’s the reason that, if you ask me why I’m in politics, my answer will be simple: children,” said Ardern, who has previously cited child poverty as the reason she entered politics at age 17.
“Like all of you here, I feel a huge duty of care to the most vulnerable and genuinely believe that our success as leaders depends on no lesser standard than the well-being of children,” she said.
So far, Ardern has been walking the walk. In January, she unveiled targets to cut New Zealand’s child poverty in half over the next 10 years — an ambitious goal she said would put New Zealand “amongst the best performing countries in the developed world.”
She has also introduced policies that aim to lift thousands out of poverty, including extending paid parental leave to 26 weeks, and making sure the country’s universal health care system tackles diseases that disproportionately affect people living in poverty.
We want to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child.
“We hate injustice,” she said of New Zealanders in her speech Sunday. “We don’t especially believe in notions of status, and we think everyone deserves decent opportunities. And that starts with kids.
“That’s why … we want to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child.”
Read More: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern Is the First World Leader to Go on Maternity Leave
She later added that she also wants to work more with the international community, aiming “to make sure that no matter where you are born in the world, your local school is the best school, there is food and a health system you can rely on, and perhaps most importantly, that you are loved and that you are heard.”
.@jacindaardern: If you ask me why I'm in politics, my answer would be simple -- children. I genuinely believe our success as politicians should be based on the status of children. We need to change how we measure success and our indicators for action. #2030NOWpic.twitter.com/JJVI5Creh4— UN Foundation (@unfoundation) September 23, 2018
Ardern’s reaffirmation of her commitment to end child poverty on Sunday coincides with the one-year anniversary of her election to prime minister. Ever since taking office, as the world’s youngest female leader, Ardern has made a name for herself as a powerful politician and a vocal proponent for social and environmental justice, especially women’s rights.
“We’ve had three female prime ministers — it’s really not a big deal, guys,” Ardern said Sunday.
Earlier this month, to mark 125 years since New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote, Ardern pledged to put “all the things left to achieve gender equality at the top of my list.”
For the occasion, she and other female MPs recreated an iconic 1905 black-and-white photograph of MPs at the time, all of whom were men.
Side-by-side: for #SuffrageDay, women MPs recreated an iconic photo of MPs taken in 1905 in the Reading Room of the Parliamentary Library. #WhakatūWāhine#WomenInPolitics#nzpol— NZ Parliament (@NZParliament) September 19, 2018
Read more about today's #Suffrage125 celebrations: https://t.co/9FF2t5f73Cpic.twitter.com/F4FF7E3E90
She has also directly challenged gender norms herself, becoming the world’s first leader to go on maternity leave while in office, and returning six weeks later with an aggressive agenda, zeroing in on mental health, the environment, and trade issues.
Her baby was even backstage with her before her speech Sunday.
“I’m reminded that I am lucky,” Ardern said in a panel discussion that followed her opening remarks. “I have an incredible support network around me. I have the ability to take my child to work — there’s not many places you can do that. [But] I am not the gold standard … because there are things about my circumstances that are not the same.”
Beyond women’s rights and poverty, Ardern has also put forth efforts to tackle climate change and pollution.
In August, for example, she announced an ambitious plan to ban single-use plastic bags throughout New Zealand, with retailers facing fines up to $65,000 if they didn’t comply. Ardern said it was the single most common issue schoolchildren wrote to her about, so she wanted to take action.
Read More: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern Returns From Maternity Leave Ready to Roar
At the Social Good Summit, Ardern said she and her government recently went out to survey children and see what they wanted them to work on.
“Their response was really stark for me,” she said. “They didn’t list all of the technological devices that they want; they didn’t say skate parks. They raised things like poverty … wanting to spend more time with their parents and their family.
“They looked beyond themselves,” she said. “And that’s what we should do as leaders, and as a government, too.”
The 2018 Global Citizen Festival in New York will be presented for the very first time by Citi. MSNBC and Comcast NBCUniversal will air a live simulcast of the Festival on MSNBC and MSNBC.com. The festival will also be livestreamed on YouTube and Twitter, presented by Johnson & Johnson.
Proud partners of the 2018 Global Citizen Festival include Global Citizen’s global health partner and major partner Johnson & Johnson, and major partners P&G, CHIME FOR CHANGE Founded by Gucci, Verizon, House of Mandela, iHeartMedia, and NYC Parks. Associate partners include Microsoft, Great Big Story, and One Championship.