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Unicef report reveals New Zealand’s poor scores for child wellbeing

Unicef has released a report today showing New Zealand is near the bottom when it comes to child wellbeing. A core reason for this is our adolescent suicide rates, the highest in the world.


By: Sarah Harris

Hone Mihaka has known a dozen friends and relatives who have taken their own lives, and he was almost one of them.

The Bay of Islands man is passionate about stopping suicide, with a special focus on teenagers. Mihaka’s 14-year-old niece took her own life last week.

“I just thought ‘not again. Another one’.

“We’ve got a Kiwi cultural issue. We’ve got a lot of experts out there. But we’re still not finding solutions. The numbers aren’t going down, they’re climbing up.”

Hone Mihaka is passionate about stopping suicide killing Northland's young people. Here he is on the Waitangi River in the Bay of Islands in 2009 - before he got his facial ta moko. Photo/Sarah Ivey
Hone Mihaka is passionate about stopping suicide killing Northland’s young people. Here he is on the Waitangi River in the Bay of Islands in 2009 – before he got his facial ta moko. Photo/Sarah Ivey 

Mihaka described his own darkest moment.

He tried to kill himself 25 years ago after he had abused his then-partner. Now he advocates passionately to stop domestic violence. He said he tried to end his life as his partner lay bleeding and crying in the next room.

But his method didn’t work.

“Thank God or I wouldn’t have a son and have become a role model among the grassroots people of my tribe.”

Hone Mihaka is the chairman of Northland's Riders Against Teenage Suicide. Photo / Supplied
Hone Mihaka is the chairman of Northland’s Riders Against Teenage Suicide. Photo / Supplied 

Mihaka believed there was a web of interconnected reasons that could lead someone to suicide. He cited poverty, isolation, loneliness, mental health, abuse, financial and relationship issues as possibilities.

He said the only solution was to talk about it. Kiwis, and men in particular, were too scared and ashamed to reveal their feelings and ask for help.

“A male commits suicide every day in New Zealand. And no one’s talking about it. No one’s saying enough about it.

“Every New Zealander in this country has been touched by the hand of suicide. We’ve all been impacted.

“We owe it to 579 New Zealanders who died last year from suicide to talk about it.”

Mihaka is the chairman of Northland Rats – Riders Against Teenage Suicide. The group was set up after a spate of youth suicides in Northland. They raise awareness by riding their motorcycles and encouraging others to talk about suicide.

Their mantra is “each one reach one” and means to reach out to everyone around you.

“It’s our fear that enables suicide to move freely among our families and communities. We need to tear down the taboo barriers.

“Once they get to that cliff face called suicide and they jump off. There’s no coming back from that.”

The report

​With the worst teen suicide rate in the world and the fifth highest teen pregnancy rate, New Zealand has come out near the bottom in a damning report that compared child wellbeing across rich countries.

New Zealand was ranked 34 out of 41 high-income EU/OECD countries, behind nations such as Lithuania, South Korea and Australia.

The Unicef report – Building the Future: Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries – ranked countries based on their performance and detailed the challenges and opportunities that advanced economies face in child wellbeing.

This is the first report of its kind using the sustainable development goals made for the 2015 Paris agreement to halve poverty by 2030.

New Zealand performed worst in the health and wellbeing category with a rank of 39 out of 41 because of its high rates of teen pregnancy, baby mortality and adolescent suicide.

Unicef executive director Vivien Maidaborn said the report proved that New Zealand policy was killing children.

“We’re hardening up, we’re starting to say this level of inequality is okay. Adults are killing children or children are killing themselves.

“We’ve got to let ourselves feel that. No New Zealanders want that to be okay.”

Maidaborn believed the country needed to move to a child-centred policy approach. An example would be instead of increasing accommodation supplements, where the increase just goes to the landlord, create a system to ensure that a family’s housing costs never exceed more than 25 per cent of their income.

“Children don’t do well in a country by accident, they do well by design. Countries like Iceland, Norway and Finland have very specific strategies in place so they know every child will do well. They reduce inequality.

“We need to put children at the centre. At the moment we design for the economy or for reasons of risk management or efficiency. Then we try and fix the bits that don’t work for particular families.”

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said vulnerable children were often “invisible”. He said New Zealand needed to rally together to address neonatal mortality rates, teen pregnancy and suicide.

“By signing up to the sustainable development goals, the Government has committed us to halving poverty by 2030 and this report shows us exactly why we need to do that.

“The next steps are having targets and milestones to measure progress, and a concerted plan to get us there.”

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley had not seen the report but said the Government had focused on supporting the most vulnerable Kiwis.

She cited the $2 billion a year Family Incomes Package, which will lift families’ incomes by an average of $26 a week.

“It’s expected to lift 20,000 families above the threshold for severe housing stress, and reduce the number of children living in families receiving less than half the median income by around 50,000.”

Child Poverty Action Group health spokeswoman Professor Innes Asher called the report a “wake up call”. She said 100,000 children experience severe difficulties and another 100,000 were in moderate difficulty.

“It’s a huge number of our children and this is the future of our country. They’ll grow up and try to support society.

“How can they be effective if they struggled so much in their early years?”

Asher said we needed more extensive family income packages, to pass the healthy homes bill so all houses would be insulated and have a heating source, and said GP visits should be free for children up until age 17.

“We haven’t got it right as a country. We are doing poorly in comparison to other rich countries. It’s beyond time to make bigger changes.

Massey University director of education professor John O’Neill said New Zealand’s results in the educational category may be misleading as they used data that emphasised participation rather than quality. He said children in poverty are less likely to have access to good quality education, which disproportionately affected Maori and Pacific Island children.

“When you look at contextual indicators like social welfare, wellbeing, awareness of sustainability and bullying then we come out poorly in relation to other countries.”

O’Neill cited early childhood solutions such as increasing the proportion of qualified teachers, ensuring the quality in the poorest communities is as high as possible and that vulnerable families could always access it would help improve achievement.

This needed to be done in conjunction with addressing the wider picture of insecure housing and meeting basic needs.


The report focused on 16 goals. Here are some of the key ones with additional notes from Unicef national advocacy manager Dr Prudence Stone. The higher the rank, the lower New Zealand is in the table of 41 developed countries.

Ensuring health and well-being – Rank 39
New Zealand’s teenage birth rate, the fifth highest in the world, is 23.3 births per 1000 females aged 15 to 19, which is a reduction from 28.7 per 1000 in 2005.

New Zealand has the worst suicide rate in the world for adolescents aged 15 to 19 at 15.6 per 100,000. Most countries have rates around 6 per 100,000, meaning New Zealand’s rate is more than twice the global average.

The neonatal mortality rate is 3.1 children per 1000 – this is higher than the OECD country average of 2.8.

New Zealand’s child-homicide rate is 7th highest in the world. There are 7.8 child deaths by intentional assault per million children.

Ending poverty – Rank 22
In New Zealand 19.8 per cent of children are living in relative income poverty.

Unicef believed New Zealand was shifting the definition of poverty.

Stone found MSD’s Household Income Survey classified “material hardship” as being deprived of seven or more key indicators such as nutrition, clothing, educational resources, leisure activities or housing. Thus 155,000 of New Zealand children were reported in last year’s survey as living with these conditions and therefore in a state of material hardship.

But Innocenti’s Report Card measures “multidimensional poverty” as being deprived of only two or more similar indicators.

Ending hunger – Rank 18
One out of every 10 children aged under 15 is living with an adult who is “food insecure”.

The 2015/16 New Zealand Health Survey found 32 per cent of New Zealand children are either obese or overweight.

Innocenti’s League Table gives a global average of just 15 per cent for children aged 11-15, and the worst rates – Malta (27 per cent) and Canada (25 per cent) are far lower than New Zealand’s.

Ensuring quality education – Rank 15
About 70 per cent of 15-year-olds were achieving a baseline competency in reading, mathematics and science and almost 99 per cent of Kiwi children participated in organised learning one year before the start of compulsory schooling.

Promoting decent economic growth and work – Rank 34
Just over 15 per cent of children live in jobless households. The global average is 9 per cent.

About 7 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds are also not in education, employment or training.

Reducing inequalities – Rank 26
The share of total income going to the top 10 per cent of households with children is nearly 20 per cent higher than the share of income of the bottom 40 per cent.

There is a relative difference of 46.7 per cent between household incomes of children at the 10th percentile and those at the median – a “bottom-end inequality” measure that puts New Zealand close to the middle among industrialised countries.

Sustainable cities and communities – Rank 9
New Zealand was ranked well in this category as concentrations of pollution in urban areas are within the internationally recognised safe level.

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns – Rank 35
About half of 15-year-olds are familiar with five or more environmental issues. The global average is 62 per cent and this indicated New Zealand youth are among those who know the least about sustainable production and consumption. Only Japan and Romania had worse rates.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Source: NZ Herald


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