The "staggering" rates of child abuse and poverty in New Zealand have been condemned in a United Nations report that calls for the Government to better recognise children's rights.
In the first report since 2003, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has also raised concerns about limited access to high-quality early childhood education, high suicide rates and widening disparities in health and living conditions for Maori children.
It has also spoken out against public schools that pressure parents to make "donations", a rise in teenage pregnancies, and moves to lower the age of criminal responsibility.
New Zealand was commended for initiatives including Working for Families, the anti-smacking bill, and 2004's Care of Children Act, which put more emphasis on children's rights in the family courts.
But the committee said "urgent measures" were needed to deal with discrimination against children in vulnerable situations – including Maori and Pacific children – who had unequal access to health and education.
Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa chairman John Hancock said priorities should be reducing the rates of violence, abuse and neglect among socially disadvantaged children and Maori children.
Though some inroads had been made since the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1993, overall progress had been slow, he said. Recently there had been "backward steps" in children's rights – such as lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12, and cost cuts in early childhood education.
Child abuse rates in New Zealand were among the highest in countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and 20 per cent of children were living in poverty – defined as a household earning 60 per cent less than the median income.
United Nations Children's Fund national advocacy manager Barbara Lambourn said that with social costs arising from child abuse and neglect estimated at about $2 billion a year, the Government could not afford to ignore the recommendations.
"If we don't look after children now, we'll be looking after them in the justice system and health system later."
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the Government was considering the recommendations, and took the UN Convention seriously.
"The committee itself notes young New Zealanders are living well in a safe and protective environment where their rights are respected and most children in New Zealand thrive.
"I recognise, however, that we have some real challenges, particularly in ensuring that all children are safe from harm."
A ministerial inquiry into child abuse had been announced, and initiatives to get people off welfare and into work would address issues of poverty, she said. "No child should go hungry."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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