New Zealand’s Maori Women’s Welfare League: Working Toward Women’s Rights in Saving Maori Culture

Drea Knufken – WNN Features

1950s image - Members of the Maori Women's Welfare League
1950s photo – Foundation members of Maori Women’s Welfare League

(WNN) WELLINGTON, NZ: “There is a wise saying: All that it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. You are not people who do nothing,” said Rt. Hon. Winston Peters, addressing the Maori Women’s Welfare League at their 54th National Conference on October 2, 2006.

For over a century the Treaty of Waitangi, which outlined the British colonization of New Zealand, has been under many revisions as the Maori people have negotiated and asked for a greater justice in the New Zealand agreement.

“If you look at. . . the last twenty years in terms of the contention for the treaty (the historic Treaty of Waitangi) on language and social issues, Maori women have been at the forefront in helping to make progress real and tangible. “And for every woman who has become a national figure there are countless others. . . leaders at the iwi (tribal) or hapu (sub-tribal) level,” writes Maori justice leader, Denese Henare, in her 1994 work on New Zealand and Maori women’s history, Carrying the Burden of Arguing the Treaty.

Historian Michael King says New Zealand’s Maori were the “last major human community on earth untouched and unaffected by the wider world.” Before the early 1800s, when the first European settlers made contact with the Maori, tribes lived ancient traditional lifestyles, practicing an established balance of power that largely conserved resources and kept communities relatively stable. However, when tribes started acquiring muskets and arms after 1805, the balance of power became destabilized.

As conflict grew many Maori also died from European-imported diseases.

In 1840, Queen Victoria sent a royal proclamation to annex New Zealand. She dispatched William Hobson to posses the country. He negotiated a treaty, which 500 out of 1500 chiefs signed, that made the Maori British subjects in exchange for property rights and tribal autonomy.

As the British and other Europeans continued to settle the islands, the way the Maori lived began to change. They adapted to Western economic changes by forming businesses around food and other products, sold for both domestic use and export.

As time passed conflicts over land increased. Several land disputes and inter-tribal disputes defined the atmosphere of the late 1800s. Many of these disputes revolved around land ownership standards (the English had different standards from the Maori, as the Maori tended to own land communally).

Otautahi branch Seal

By 1890, the Maori had lost 95% of their land through the questionable rulings of the Native Land Court, established by the British government in the 1860s. During those years the Maori continued to lose visibility in the ruling system, especially Maori women.

According to New Zealand statistics, most people, by the turn of the 20th century, believed the Maori would die out as a race, due to assimilation into European culture. Considering that the Maori to European population proportion was 100,000:2,000 in 1840, and had drastically changed to 36,000:600,000 by the early 1900s, this concern appears to be based on solid evidence.

The trend, however, did not continue. Though many Maori women married Europeans, many retained their cultural identity. Maori culture recovered through the many efforts of the Maori women’s population. The Maori also regained their voice in politics at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1919 the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act gave women the right to stand for Parliament. Finally, in 1941, Women gained the right to sit in the Legislative Council in the nominated upper house of Parliament.

Today, controversies remain around land ownership and other domestic issues in New Zealand. Most Maori women and their families now live in urban areas, distancing them from tribal customs. The European-led government has now made moves to assimilate Maori culture. Actions include designating Maori seats of parliament, teaching Maori language and culture in schools, and funding Maori television and public TV stations.

For all the progress they made in the 20th century though, the Maori still lag behind in education, health, and employment. They are also statistically incarcerated much more often than New Zealanders of European descent. According to New Zealand Department of Corrections, “they (the Maori) make up almost 50% of the total prison population,” though they’re only 14% of the population.

Maori poverty today brings with it lower levels of education, higher suicide rates, and problems with drugs and alcohol.
These problems began to rise in the 1930s when many Maori families moved from rural to urban areas. Problems with income and housing were exacerbated as New Zealand grew by European racism. It was not until the early 1950’s that Maori women, who made efforts to step forward to take a more active part in public or tribal affairs, began to make improvements for Maori family conditions.

As more and more Maori families moved to cities, intermingling with the increasing numbers of Europeans moving into New Zealand, the social and economic landscape of Maori life was changing forever. It became clear then that Maori women needed to play a stronger role in architecting the future of the Maori people.

Otautahi branch president, Aroha Reriti Crofts
Otautahi branch president, Aroha Reriti Crofts

The 1945 Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act was the catalyst for the Maori Women’s Welfare League. Maori welfare officers, primarily male, recognized the need for women’s input into male Tribal Committees. In 1951, the Maori Women’s Welfare League was formed in Wellington, with 90 female delegates. A national forum for Maori women to voice their input was formed with its stated objective, “To promote fellowship and understanding between Maori and European women and to cooperate with other women’s organizations, Departments of State, and local bodies for the furtherance of these objects.”

For the first time, Maori women were able to represent themselves in the New Zealand government. Their coming together created empowerment for women and support through networking, strategizing, and taking leadership roles for their people.

The Maori Women’s Welfare League enacted these goals in part by giving aid to all people in need, be they members or not. Additionally they made it a goal to keep Maori culture alive through the preservation of native arts and crafts. Finally an important objective was to create a national forum to enable Maori women to voice their input. One of its many stated objectives was to “Promote fellowship and understanding between Maori and all women and to cooperate with other women’s organizations, Departments of State, and local bodies for the furtherance of these objects.”

The league grew rapidly from inception, in 1951, with 90 delegates to over 3,000 members inside New Zealand and around the globe today. Programs run the gamut – from immunization campaigns for Maori babies, to teaching young mothers to plant and maintain vegetable gardens, to providing community health centers and mobile nursing units. Most of the women’s phenomenal achievements focus today on community wellness and the family.

Today the Otautahi Maori Women’s Welfare League supports public immunization, including vaccinating Maori babies to protect them from the past epidemics of meningococcal disease in New Zealand.

In Christchurch, New Zealand the League’s initiatives have included creating autonomous organizations, such as the Poutama Training Center, Whanau Toko i te Ora and Te Puawaitanga ki Otautahi who provided lifestyle programmes, assist high needs at risk Whanau including guidance as basic and vital to health as quitting smoking.

Today the League continues to hold strong in its actions and help for Maori communities in light of continual racist backlashes in New Zealand media and community.


The Maori people originally had no written language. Stories were told only through carvings, song and dance. This 3:06 min, April 2007, music video produced and performed by Maori singer and celebrity, Moana Maniapoto, and her musical family.

For More Information on This Topic:


Drea Knufken is a freelance writer and journalist living in Boulder, Colorado. She first became aware of international women’s issues when she studied abroad in Accra, Ghana, and saw first-hand the powerful role women had in keeping that country thriving.

Sources for this article include Denese Henare’s 1994 edition – Carrying the Burden of Arguing the Treaty, Michael King’s – The Penguin History of New Zealand, YouTube, The Corrections Department of New Zealand, The National Council of Maori Women, New Zealand Women’s Suffrage Milestones from NZ History online, Wikipedia encyclopedia on Maori language and The Maori Women’s Welfare League.

©Women News Network – WNN
Republishing of any part of this article is only granted with permissions from WNN.