Our work in NZ

What it’s like to be a Māori child

We have been talking to rangatahi throughout the country about their opinions on issues affecting them.

As New Zealanders, we feel we are a privileged nation with accessible, clean water and great health care. We are not under a massive threat of genocide or human trafficking. To many other countries we are a great place to be a child. But we can be better.

Mental health, trauma and suicide are dark parts of New Zealand’s landscape. They all have an enormous impact on children and young people, but too often the views of those young people affected are not sought.

People generally aren’t asking young people what their views are on this and if they are, young people are not listening.

UNICEF New Zealand wants to change that.

We have been talking to young people throughout the country about their opinions on issues affecting them. Most recently we spoke with 24 rangatahi (Māori youth) about what wellbeing means to them, and their life experience in Aotearoa-New Zealand. They were from all over the North Island, from different backgrounds and communities, but their answers were strikingly similar.

When asked what they liked to do to feel happy when they are down, the most common answer was to be around loved ones and friends. Only one young person said that they would go to a parent, meaning parents may not be the most informed of their child’s wellbeing.

However, that does not make a parent less responsible. Parents are guardians over their child’s wellbeing. If their child relies on friends and family, a parent’s responsibility should be to support those who are supporting their child.

When asked how they support a friend who is visibly struggling, every young person said they would want to be there for their mate, talk things through, or eat together.

I can tell you’re down, my bro, and I’m here for you 100%
I can tell you’re down, my bro, and I’m here for you 100%

None of them would want to leave that person alone, but it raises questions of what helping looks like, and whether that young person has the skills and tools for such situations.

Helping means different things to different people, so we need to show young people how to help their mates going through hard times. Without that guidance, young people may miss out on the support they need.

The most powerful response was when we asked what whānau (extended group of family and friends) means to you.

“Every f**kn thing”

It was a powerful message supported by everyone surveyed. They all view family, as something greater than the traditional structure. It is a connection between everyone they love and those who have helped them through challenges.

Young people do not talk about being a statistic until they are told they are.

“Whānau is family. It means we don’t give up on each other”

This raises the issue of structural racism against Māori and the further harms it causes. Māori are incarcerated disproportionately more than non-Māori. Disproportionately more Māori children are taken away from their whānau and placed into state care.

Considering how much these young people love and care about their whānau, it is heartbreaking to know how difficult it must be for those who have had them stripped away, isolated and misplaced. There is no justification for how common this experience is for Māori children and young people. The time to change that is now. Government, they are talking to you!

There is still hope. When these young people were asked what it is like to live in Aotearoa, they all said it was great.

We regularly hear from the government, media — even here at UNICEF — that the conditions in which Māori are raised are unacceptable. Our Māori children are living in the worst houses, receiving the worst education and dying frequently from suicide and preventable illnesses.

But, despite all those challenges, these young people are completely grateful for what they have in their lives right now.

“It’s beautiful growing up here, it’s the place where I get to call home. Though we have struggles there is no other place I would want to be”

Our young people are bursting with potential and it’s too early to be counting them out and not having them be a part of our decision making.

Young people do not talk about being a statistic until they are told they are.

We need to be fighting for a better New Zealand, and for a bright future, for every child.

The rangatahi UNICEF NZ spoke with are part of 2Face, a drama group that tours New Zealand to raise awareness of mental health and suicide among young people, which is a huge issue for Māori youth. To find out more, or support their work, click here.