Women Helping Women to Survive and Thrive

zonta blue mountains helping women in africa

A pregnant mum set to benefit from a Clean Birth Kit. (Photo: Birthing Kit Foundation Australia)

Story by Julie Nance

A small group of Blue Mountains women is helping local women survive and thrive and also contributing to improve maternal and newborn survival in developing countries. Assembling birthing kits for women in remote locations is just one of the many ways the Zonta Club of the Blue Mountains is empowering and supporting women, both abroad and at home. Maree Cairns is a driving force in the Club. The retired educator of 37 years – 30 of those as Assistant Principal – dedicates her life to giving back.

Key Points:

  • Zonta International is a leading global organisation of individuals working together to build a better world for women and girls. The Zonta Club of the Blue Mountains meets monthly, alternating between venues at Glenbrook and Wentworth Falls.
  • Zonta works locally to improve educational outcomes by providing local women with TAFE and high school scholarships and mentorship. Members also sew breast care cushions to aid local women’s recovery after breast surgery and they provide care packages including toiletries for a local women’s refuge.
  • The Zonta Club of the Blue Mountains has also been pivotal in helping Blue Mountains City Council put together their gender equity strategy, along with the Women’s Health and Resource Centre and Belong Blue Mountains. They’re also a representative on the Mayoral Reference Group for family and domestic violence and part of the Coalition Against Violence and Abuse (CAVA), which is a collection of social welfare groups.

Q and A with Maree

How did groups of Aussie women end up helping mums-to-be in developing countries?  

This all started about 30 years ago when an Adelaide doctor attended a United Nations conference on women, in Beijing. She heard actor Sally Field talking about a birthing kit she had seen in Nepal. The doctor came home to Adelaide and developed the Birthing Kit – a small zip-lock bag containing six basic, clean items. The doctor asked her local Zonta Club to help assemble the kits and it morphed into the Birthing Kit Foundation Australia. Every Zonta Club continues to help with this work.

I hear the kit has gone green?

Yes. The plastic bag and cloth – designed to be put on the ground where the woman gives birth – are both biodegradable. The kit also includes vegan soap, a pair of surgical gloves, swabs, sterilised strings to tie off the umbilical cord and a sterile blade.

Pregnant women in a remote African community hold their Clean Birth Kits

Pregnant women in a remote community hold their Clean Birth Kits, providing them and their unborn babies with a better chance of a positive outcome. (Photo: Birthing Kit Foundation Australia) 

Watch BKFA’s compelling video The Journey of the Birthing Kit:

It must be satisfying for you and your fellow Club members to play a part in this important initiative.  

Research has shown that maternal and infant death are high if you don’t even have the basics. It’s really about trying to create a hygienic little environment wherever the women are. In addition to assembling kits we also fundraise. A kit is only $5 each – the price of a cup of coffee. It has such an incredible, tangible impact.  

Zonta Blue Mountains members assembling the Clean Birth Kits

Zonta members assembling the Clean Birth Kits, wearing gloves and masks to help to keep germs away. (Photo: Zonta Blue Mountains)  

Congratulations on receiving the Blue Mountains Senior Citizen of the Year award in 2022. Trish Doyle MP said at the time:    

“I hold Maree in the highest regard, as an educator of excellence, a mentor, a supporter of community organisations, a tireless volunteer and an advocate for change in the field of gender equality. She has had a lifetime of service in public schools throughout New South Wales, making a significant contribution to the lives of families in the Hazelbrook community over many years as a classroom teacher and assistant principal.”

That’s very impressive and adds up to a great deal of giving to the community. What motivates you and did your drive to support others start as a child?

I came from a family of domestic violence, as a child. It’s what forms you. My mother had five children and had to work. There were times when we didn’t eat, when we didn’t have shoes. So when you break out of that, you feel you have to give back. Education was what opened all the doors for me.

As a teacher, I spent a lot of time with those kids who didn’t come from ‘typical’ backgrounds, with all the issues that can bring. I knew if I could encourage them and make them really excited about learning, they had a chance. I’m very fortunate where I sit now. I own a house and I’m comfortable and that’s because of education. I feel an obligation to make sure other women have those opportunities. I also call out gender inequity all the time.

Maree Cairns, former president of Zonta Club of the Blue Mountains

Maree Cairns, former president of Zonta Club of the Blue Mountains and now member. (Photo: Julie Nance) 

It was interesting to read that Zonta International started with a club in 1919 in Massachusetts, set up by Marian de Forest, with aviator Amelia Earhart a member.

Zonta is a Lakota Sioux Indian word that means ‘honest and trustworthy’. The main focus of Zonta is to empower women and girls through service and advocacy. There’s always an education program and a health program.

Zonta runs a whole range of international scholarships, and the one that stands out for me is the Amelia Earhart Scholarship, which is for a woman doing postgraduate studies in Aeronautical Science. They award 10 a year and it’s $10,000 US dollars. Australia has had young women recipients and we had one last year. It’s career changing for them.

I understand Zonta also works locally to improve educational outcomes by providing local women with TAFE and high school scholarships and mentorship. What outcome have you been particularly proud of?

I think the TAFE awards are the ones that mean the most to me because we give two: one to a young woman who chooses an alternate pathway to her higher school certificate and the other to an older woman who is retraining or training to join the workforce for the first time.

Our recipient last year was a Japanese lady in her 40s. She didn’t have the opportunity to study because her mother had a stroke and at the age of 19 she became her carer. Once her mother passed away she spent her time working 12 hour-days in a Japanese restaurant. She did the TAFE pathways course and then a maths degree at Western Sydney University. She is now a maths teacher.

The support Zonta provides is so diverse, including sewing breast care cushions to aid women’s recovery after breast surgery?

Women often have lymph nodes taken out during breast surgery. The cushion sits under their arm and takes the pressure off the wounds. Every now and then we get an email from someone who says something along the lines of: “I had one of your breast cushions and it really helped, thank you so much.”

Zonta sewers making a difference with their breast care cushions

Zonta sewers making a difference with their breast care cushions. (Photo: Zonta Blue Mountains)

I hear you also provide care packages including toiletries for a local women’s refuge?  

We’re noticing an increasing trend of women having to stay long periods at the refuge because they’ve got nowhere to go. A lot of the toiletries and other essentials we provide are donated to us. Many of us put an extra deodorant or shampoo into our trolley when we shop. We also had a great big timber table made for a refuge courtyard. We received a photo of the table covered in kids’ paintings, playdough, blocks and teacups.  

zonta dv west kits

Supplies heading for a local refuge. (Photo: Zonta Blue Mountains)

Is there anything else you feel is important to highlight about Zonta?


Advocacy! Advocacy is making sure that everywhere there’s something happening, Zonta is there saying ‘what about women? What about women? What about women?’.

We were pivotal in helping the Blue Mountains City Council put together their gender equity strategy, along with the Women’s Health and Resource Centre and Belong Blue Mountains. That was really important. We’re also a representative on the Mayoral Reference Group for family and domestic violence and part of the Coalition Against Violence and Abuse (CAVA), which is a collection of social welfare groups.

You must have incredible energy. How do you keep up with everything?

You always find time for the things you love. I encourage people to just get involved and find something that is your passion. Everyone has something to contribute. Older people particularly have got so much life experience and wisdom to share. 

Zonta stall at Glenbrook Rotary Markets

Look out for the Zonta stall at Glenbrook Rotary Markets (Photo: Zonta Blue Mountains)

Take Action:

  • If you are interested in finding out more about the Zonta Club of the Blue Mountains and  getting involved, visit their website, their Facebook page or phone Maree on 0419 638 912.
  • Zonta meets on the first Monday of the month at 6.30pm, alternating between Glenbrook Panthers and the Grand View Hotel in Wentworth Falls.
  • Help Zonta Club of the Blue Mountains raise funds for more birthing kits.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Julie Nance

Julie Nance is a community storyteller with the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative. In her coverage of the Lower Mountains area, she brings 30 years’ experience in communications, publishing and journalism. After specialising in health and social issues as a journalist, Julie led creative teams in the government and not-for-profit sectors including the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, YMCA NSW, Cancer Council NSW and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Julie is passionate about empowering people with quality information to help them make informed choices.

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