Half a century ago, Whina Cooper channeled the energies of indigenous Maori women in New Zealand into a force for change. The year was 1951, Cooper was 56, and the challenge was overcoming the decades-old lack of adequate education, health care, and employment opportunities for Maori people. In response, Cooper and a handful of other wahine (women) raised their own funds and launched the Maori Women’s Welfare League, to promote the well-being of wahine and their families. Now, 50 years later, the league is recognized as one of the oldest and most powerful indigenous women’s rights groups in the world.
“Being indigenous adds a whole other layer to our struggle,” says Jacqui Te Kani, the league’s current president. “Maori wahine are, by far, more disadvantaged than women throughout Aotearoa [New Zealand].” At the time of the league’s founding, many Maori women were at or below the national poverty level and were rarely enrolled in schools, which refused to offer classes in their native language of Te Reo. They also suffered from unique poverty- and stress-related health issues that were neither understood nor addressed. And domestic violence abounded.
Where other groups had failed to make progress on these issues, the league succeeded by envisioning itself as Maori, first and foremost. “To become involved with non-Maori organizations is to be controlled,” says Te Kani. “We don’t want that. We want to control our own destiny with programs by Maori, for Maori.” The league’s first step was to survey urban districts and confirm that the vast majority of Maori who had migrated to cities after World War II lived in unsanitary, overcrowded dwellings. The league took this information to city councils, and the national department of Maori affairs razed the slums and replaced them with adequate public housing.
Another goal was to reclaim their native language. In the 1960s, the women’s league developed an after-school homework program and established Maori language schools. In the 1980s, it persuaded the government to include Te Reo in public school curricula and make it one of the country’s official languages.
In 1985, the league began sending voluntary researchers to survey wahine about their health. It found extremely high smoking rates, and a prevalence of cervical cancer with a mortality rate four times the national average. Researchers also detected a high incidence of asthma-related problems, as well as mental, emotional, and physical ailments that arise from child and spousal abuse.
Among other projects, the women’s league founded the Maori Nurses Association, which makes house calls to wahine who are isolated from mainstream health care facilities. The needs of young Maori were also a priority. The group sponsored projects such as a netball competition for nonsmokers in an attempt to combat smoking and self-destructive behavior, particularly among teens. And because the youth suicide rate in Aotearoa is among the highest in the world, the league worked to lift the spirits of its people with a campaign centered around the slogan, BE PROUD, BE FIT, BE MAORI.
League members also addressed violence by enlisting mentors to work with at-risk Maori families. When there is evidence of abuse, mentors intervene and confront those responsible. And in an attempt to strengthen families and prevent violence, mentors urge families to spend less time in front of the TV and more time interacting with each other.
By the end of 1987, the league claimed yet another victory with the launch of the Maori Women’s Development Fund, which encourages wahine to become entrepreneurs and, in turn, employ their Maori sisters. An evaluation of the fund in 1997 found that it was successfully providing mentoring, loans, job training, and employment. The group is generating more of its own revenue and seeking a more active role for its people in New Zealand’s commercial and political mainstream by placing Maori wor