New Zealand given ‘F for failure’ on child obesity and youth suicide in Unicef report

‘Woeful’ result puts country in bottom 15% for overall child wellbeing which Ardern says reflects previous government’s underinvestment

Unicef says New Zealand is failing children after a new report revealed the country’s poor childhood obesity and suicide statistics have pushed it to near the very bottom on child wellbeing.

The latest Unicef Innocenti report card shows that, out of 41 developed countries in the OECD and European Union, New Zealand ranks 35th.

The country’s youth suicide rates are the second highest in the developed world, with 14.9 deaths per 100,000 adolescents, according to the UN Children’s Fund rankings. Only 64% of 15-year-olds have basic reading and maths skills.

New Zealand also has the second-highest obesity rate in the OECD with than one in three children being obese or overweight.

Unicef NZ executive director Vivien Maidaborn said New Zealand’s rankings were “woeful”.

“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 New Zealand.”

She said that Unicef urged the government to listen carefully to the perspectives of children and young people, and to hear what they have to say about wellbeing.

“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.”

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said the report was more reflective of the previous government’s underinvestment in families and did not take into account its recent progress and funding that had been allocated to the area.

Ardern said the Unicef report pre-dated both her government’s $5.5bn (US$3.7bn) families package and its progress lifting more than 18,000 children out of poverty.

In December last year, New Zealand’s children’s commissioner said the Ardern government had failed to reduce child poverty. Andrew Becroft’s report found 148,000 children lived in homes experiencing material hardship in six or more areas, including lack of access to basics such as warm clothing, health care and food. The figures were unchanged since the first report into child poverty in 2012.

Ardern’s government accepted the recommendations from the Unicef report to consult with children, ensure an integrated approach to child wellbeing and plan for the future, she said.

“What’s important is that as a government we keep making progress to ensure our children have a warm, dry home, access to healthcare, safe and healthy food, and the chance to have a childhood in which they’re free to learn and play,” Ardern said.

European countries all came at the top of the charts for child wellbeing with the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, Spain, France, Belgium, Slovenia, and Sweden all taking out the top 10 places.