What is it like being a Māori child?
Jan. 10, 2019
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OPINION: November 20 is World Children's Day and Unicef NZ is calling for improved efforts to involve children and young people in decisions that affect their future.

In September Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood on the stage of the Social Good Summit in New York, saying she wants New Zealand to be the best place in the world to be a child.

That could be true. 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 aren't asking young people what their views are on this and if they are asking young people, they are not listening.

We have been asking young people throughout the country to share their opinions on issues affecting them. Most recently we spoke with 24 rangatahi about what wellbeing means to them, and their experience of life in Aotearoa. They were from all over the North Island, all 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 their parent, meaning that a parent may not be the most informed person on their child's wellbeing.

However, that does not make a parent less responsible. Parents are guardians over their child's wellbeing and if their child is relying on their friends and other family members, a parent's responsibility should be to support those who are supporting their child.

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

"I can tell you're down my bro and I'm here for you 100 per cent."

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 receiving the support they need.

The most powerful response was what whānau means to rangatahi.

"Every f....... thing."

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

"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. Māori children are disproportionately taken far away from their whānau and displaced 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 whānau stripped away, isolated and misplaced. There is no justification for how common this experience is for Māori children and young people. The time is now to change that. Government, they are talking to you.

But, there is great 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 Government, media - even us 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 outcomes and dying more prevalently from suicide and preventable illnesses.

But, despite all of 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.

Unicef stands for every child, so that they get the support they need to flourish and succeed. To find out more about Unicef's work for young people, click here. The rangatahi surveyed are part of 2Face Drama, which tours Aotearoa each year to raise awareness around suicide and mental health among young people. To support the group, click here.