Is New Zealand failing its children?

Published on Tuesday, 13 October 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Out of 41 EU and OECD countries, New Zealand ranks 35th in child wellbeing outcomes according to a UNICEF report card. In addition, New Zealand has the second highest obesity rate in the OECD, with more than 1 in 3 children that are obese or overweight. Meanwhile only 64.6 per cent of 15-year-old children in New Zealand have basic proficiency in reading and maths.

UNICEF New Zealand Executive Director Vivien Maidaborn said these figures showed New Zealand was failing its children.

“The Report Card gives New Zealand an F for failure when it comes to wellbeing outcomes for children,” she said.

“This is a woeful result for a country that prides itself on the great outdoors, academic achievement, and the international success of our sports teams. It is time to be alarmed and activated about the inequality of opportunity, health and wellbeing in NZ.”

New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is the second worst in the developed world at 14.9 deaths per 100,000 adolescents. This rate is more than twice the average among the 41 OECD countries surveyed (6.5 deaths per 100,000 adolescents). This report references the most recent and comparable data across 41 countries.

“New Zealand’s high suicide rate is influenced by a constellation of other factors, such as colonisation, the bias of teachers in schools which exclude children, socio-economic background, poverty, cultural influences and inequality,” says Ms Maidaborn.

The results in this report are the latest in a growing trend. Last year, UNICEF’s State of the World's Children report ranked New Zealand second worst in the OECD for child obesity. New Zealand also ranked 33rd of 38 for educational inequality across preschool, primary school and secondary school levels in UNICEF’s 2018 Report Card.

Ms Maidaborn said the statistics in the report should not be considered in isolation. “UNICEF is urging the government to listen carefully to the perspectives of children and young people, and to hear what they have to say about wellbeing. But, also, to do more than listen: to invest in the solutions and approaches that young people want. We need to reimagine Aotearoa by heeding the advice from child rights experts – and especially Māori leaders and academics – in order to make New Zealand the best country in the world to be a child.”

Ms Maidaborn also highlighted New Zealand’s long standing commitments to both UNDRIP (a declaration with a particular focus on the survival, dignity and wellbeing of indigenous peoples) and UNCROC (a convention aimed at protecting the rights of children). “Right now, New Zealand is failing in both commitments,” she said.

Based on indicators used in Report Card 16: Worlds of Influence child wellbeing, Chile, Bulgaria and the United States ranked as the worst places to be a child, while the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway ranked as the best.

“Many of the world’s richest countries – which have the resources they need to provide good childhoods for all – are failing children,” said Gunilla Olsson, Director of UNICEF Innocenti, who compiled the report. “Unless governments take rapid and decisive action to protect child wellbeing as part of their pandemic responses, we can continue to expect soaring child poverty rates, deteriorating mental and physical health, and a deepening skill divide among children.”

Key findings from the Report Card

Mental health: In most countries, fewer than four in five children report being satisfied with their lives. Turkey has the lowest rate of life satisfaction at 53 per cent, followed by Japan and the United Kingdom. The Netherlands, Mexico and Romania have the highest rates of life satisfaction. Children who have less supportive families and those who are bullied have significantly poorer mental health.

Lithuania has the highest rate of adolescent suicide – a leading cause of death among 10-19-year old children in rich countries – followed by New Zealand and Estonia.

Physical health: Obesity and overweight rates among children have increased in recent years. Around 1 in 3 children across all countries are either obese or overweight, with rates in Southern Europe also sharply increasing. The United States has the highest obesity rates at 42 per cent, followed by New Zealand and Greece at 39 per cent and 37 per cent respectively.

Skills: On average 40 per cent of children across all OECD and EU countries do not have basic reading and mathematics skills by age 15. Children in Bulgaria, Romania and Chile are the least proficient in these skills. Estonia, Ireland and Finland the most proficient. In most countries, at least 1 in 5 children lack confidence in their social skills to make new friends. Children in Chile, Japan and Iceland are the least confident in this area.

The report also ranks countries based on their policies that support child well-being and other factors including the economy, society and environment. Norway, Iceland and Finland have the highest-ranking policies and context to support child well-being. Turkey, Mexico and Greece have the worst. On average, countries spend less than 3 per cent of their GDP on family and child policies.

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