Birth Fate: Institutionalized Racism in New Zealand Prisons

New Zealand has the second highest incarceration rate in the Western World, beat only by the United States. Yet, there is an unequal distribution throughout prisons, with Maori making up majority of those incarcerated. The explanation lies in history.

Historic prison in Dunedin, New Zealand. Benchill. BY-SA 3.0.

Historic prison in Dunedin, New Zealand. Benchill. BY-SA 3.0.

New Zealand has been praised for its efforts in incorporating aspects of indigenous culture into everyday life. Road signs are posted in both English and Maori. Students in school learn Maori history and culture. The All Blacks do the haka. But looking beneath the surface it is apparent that racism against the Maori culture still very much exists. This is no more evident as in the incarceration rates. Maori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population but over 50 percent of the prison population. This difference has to be examined not just on a criminal justice level but also from a historical perspective. 

A study from the University of Otago, found that there three main reasons behind the high incarceration rates for Maori people. They are structural racism, intergenerational trauma, and colonization. Of course these three are all intertwined with colonization being the cause for intergenerational trauma and structural racism. The biggest effects of colonization come from subordination and institutionalized change. Having a change in the value of wealth – to one of monetary and property value – and being on the losing end of that spectrum creates a never ending struggle. Maori justice system before colonization revolved around group accountability and following tikanga, the Maori just way of being. Prisons involve punishment and individual causation. Adapting to a system whose values are drastically different than your own and having to fight for your land and culture, has left the Maori at a disadvantage. 

On an individual level, majority of inmates had been a victim to violence, had a mental health diagnosis or brain injury, did not have proper schooling, and/or had a parent who also had been in correctional facilities. Poverty on its own is a huge factor in crime statistics with first acts being committed out of necessity. Add on top of that, generational histories of crime, violence, and mental health, it is hard to break the cycle.  

If you look both at the history of New Zealand and the history of the person, it is no surprise that institutionalized racism exists. The current government is working on reducing the number of people incarcerated but it is hard to tackle the problem when Maori representation at the government level is lacking. They are looking towards examples from Norway, with community correction facilities, and there are programs working to bring Maori values to prisons. But until more effort is done to correct inequalities in wealth, education, and healthcare it may be hard to have lasting change. 

DEVIN O’DONNELL’s interest in travel was cemented by a multi-month trip to East Africa when she was 19. Since then, she has continued to have immersive experiences on multiple continents. Devin has written for a start-up news site and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Neuroscience.


New Zealand’s “Headscarf for Harmony” Effort

Women wear headscarves to stand in solidarity with New Zealand Muslim community.

This week, women in New Zealand are wearing hijabs to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community following the shooting of 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch.

The effort, called “Headscarf for Harmony”, was created by Auckland doctor Thaya Ashman. After hearing a Muslim woman say that she was afraid to leave her house wearing a hijab, Ashman wanted a way to show her support and solidarity. “I wanted to say: We are with you, we want you to feel at home on your own streets, we love, support and respect you,” she told Reuters.

Ashman spoke with the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand and the Muslim Association of New Zealand before putting the effort into action. She told the New Zealand Herald that she used the word headscarf instead of hijab to recognize the cultural difference present for non-Muslims.

The Headscarf for Harmony hashtag continues to spread across social media. where New Zealanders are posting pictures of themselves in headscarves accompanied by captions offering their support for the Muslim community.

"These people are New Zealanders, just like I am,” twenty four-year-old Cherie Hailwood told CNN. “I understand that one day is very different to wearing it all the time, but I am honored to be given the permission of the Muslim community to walk in their shoes. Even just for a day.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore a black headscarf when meeting with members of the Muslim community. Even news anchors and reporters joined the effort, wearing headscarves on live television. At an open prayer at the Al Noor mosque where the attack had taken place, New Zealand women wore head scarves as a gesture of respect and solidarity.

“Being a Muslim, I’m overwhelmed,” one man tweeted, “I have never seen this kind of solidarity in my entire life—the vigils, the Haka performances, the scarves. It’s just amazing and heartwarming.”

Not all supported the effort. On a Muslim woman published an unsigned article saying that while the movement may mean well, it is no more than “cheap tokenism”.

She wrote that the effort, “stinks of white savior mentality, where Muslim women need to be rescued by (largely) white folk. This type of ideology plays a part in the pyramid of white supremacy and must be acknowledged so people can stop virtue signaling and understand the impact of their actions.”

She went on to say that the attack, “was not just about Muslims, it was against any person of colour in a 'white' country so this focus on hijabs is derailing the examination of white supremacy, systematic racism, orientalism and bigotry. We don't want to be turned into a caricature.”



EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her.

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New Zealand's Female Prime Minister Takes Maternity Leave

By Ministry of Justice of New Zealand ( [CC BY-SA 4.0  (], via Wikimedia Common)

By Ministry of Justice of New Zealand ( [CC BY-SA 4.0  (], via Wikimedia Common)

Women in positions of power, especially those of political nature, have historically been insufficiently represented within society. According to an article by TIME Magazine, just 11 countries of nearly 200 globally are lead by women today. However, gender norms are changing as feminist movements throughout the past century have pushed the limits of traditional female roles. New Zealand is one of the most progressive and equal countries around the world when it comes to issues of race and gender. As of October 26, 2017, Jacinda Ardern became the country’s third female prime minister—a feat on its own. She then went on to represent a greater controversy regarding the lack of women in positions of political power and the expectations placed on them once there. Ardern countered these expectations as a young female leader, unmarried and pregnant while still in office.

The prime minister used this opportunity to make a statement about gender equality, proving that traditional roles and rules regarding men, women, marriage, and children are outdated and wrongfully stigmatized. Ardern went on to suggest she would take a maternity leave, a first for any leader around the world. She announced that following her maternity leave, her husband and fishing documentarian will become a stay at home dad. She pridefully acknowledged on Instagram that her and her partner would become two of the many parents who “wear two hats.” New Zealand Labour prime minister Helen Clarke stated, “These are the kinds of practical arrangements working women make all over the world—the novelty here is that it is a prime minister who is making them. The signal this sends, however, is that this is life in the 21st century.” Clearly, Ardern has defied what has been typically represented in political positions by living and acting as many families do in today’s age. All at once, she disputes the expectations placed on politicians, traditional relationships and the role of women by decisively representing the new reality.

Upon the announcement of her pregnancy to the country, she remarked, “I don’t want to ever give the impression that I’m some kind of wonder woman or that women should be expected to do everything because I am. I’m not doing everything.” On June 21, 2018, her young daughter was born and it appeared that the whole of New Zealand was watching, waiting, and supporting the 37-year old leader. She shared the news of her child’s birth over a Facebook Live video. This openness implies a level of commitment to relatability to which her country has connected. She has achieved a 76% personal approval rate among NZ citizens.

Among her many achievements, from becoming the youngest prime minister to take office in NZ to being the first woman to take a maternity leave as the leader of a country, she was also named as part of TIME Magazine’s most influential people of 2018. Jacinda Ardern challenges the notion that women can’t have it all, she confidently meshes motherhood with career while leading a country into the new epoch. For women and politics around the world, she is paving the way for more female empowerment and acting—not simply remarking—on behalf of her values about equality.

ELEANOR DAINKO is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia studying Spanish and Latin American Interdisciplinary Studies. She recently finished a semester in Spain, expanding her knowledge of opportunity and culture as it exists around the world. With her passion to change the world and be a more socially conscious person, she is an aspiring entrepreneur with the hopes of attending business school over seas after college. 

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