Caring for the ‘highest university’: a commentary on the Whanau Ora Māori Inquiry hui


By Kerri Cleaver (Ngai Tahu, PhD candidate University of Otago, Social Worker).

Sitting in the Whanau Ora Māori Inquiry hui there was a lot to take in. I had never before been in a room with so many of our diverse Māori leaders; activists, MPs, academics, doctors, Iwi and community leaders. All there for one purpose, to work together in unity, with all our multiple lived experiences.  The clear focus of the day was to look forward and to plan what the Inquiry might look like, to think about our Māori aspirations and dreams for solving the complex situation of child and whanau safety.  Important and unanimous korero was given by the panel of Dames and Knights as they clearly articulated a shared vision of a Māori owned, led and delivered future system, challenging the current system and repeatedly highlighting Puao-te-ata-tu, the dawn that never came.

“The womb is the highest university” was the statement that most resonated with me through the day and has stuck with me as I have reflected, analysed and tried to make sense of the day’s relevance for us in Te Wai Pounamu, for us as Kāi Tahu in partnership with Oranga Tamariki. I am a Mana Wahine believer and so the idea of the womb as a university really made me think about women and the policing of our bodies. Internationally and nationally we are currently challenging the self determination rights of our bodies through abortion legislation, previously through forced sterilization policies and through forced adoption both prior and subsequent to the Adoptions Act 1955. Māori women’s history with state child protection is just another form of the state believing that it knows better. History shows the state intentionally refused health and financial aid to Māori women and children up until the 1910’s though promised in Article Three of Te Tiriti and then with a flip of the coin stepped in and started taking babies. There continues to be undercurrents of these layers of paternalistic patriarchy that we as Māori women live under today.

The womb as the highest university defines the mother’s importance, mothers are engaged in the greatest teaching of a future child’s life before they are even born. This is whakapapa, and why we call whenua the land and placenta, why hapū is pregnancy and extended whānau and why iwi refers to bones and the bones of our people. It is all connected and for each baby born it starts in their mother’s womb, in this magical university.

When we position our Māori mothers at the centre of care and protection and we wrap around in a korowai of protection ensuring that their wombs are respected, that the process of giving birth remains sacred, and that we realise the connection between mother and baby extends past the womb we are heading in the right direction. This was reiterated by Jean Te Huia who articulated the real hurt and trauma that current processes produce when mothers become childless through state removal at the very time that joy and safety should be secured.

The paternalistic patriarchal violence of the current systems seems undeniable to me. It perpetuates, repeats and continues the family violence dynamic that too often find women losing their children. It leads to the rescue narratives that Ministers and CEOs have been resorting to in defence of a broken system where the state needs to save our ‘brown babies’ and knows best. To truly hold our mothers and babies up and actually uplift them we will need to re-design, re-organise a system which Keddell (2017) states is centred in a ‘child rescue’ model. In her article Keddell critiques the Expert Panel Review for moving towards a pre-emptive priority of early removal and placement in permanent arrangements under the false assumption that the foster system is a better parent, rather than shifting to a holistic system inclusive of ‘high intensity preservation tertiary services’.

In Care and Protection of tamariki Māori in the family court systemWilliams, Ruru, Irwin-Easthope, Quince, and Gifford (2019) urgently call for a disrupting of “the systemic undermining of Māori and their whānau” both through Oranga Tamariki and the Family Court. They demonstrate a diminishing of the role of whanau, hapu and iwi in Family Court processes while suggesting the care extension provisions under extended powers in the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 just extends involvement with the system, while subsequent child legislation will result in a lost generation of Māori children to the state.

Adding in the call from the Whanau Ora hui to center Te Ao Māori in the solution Quince reminds us of the whakatauki “E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea” (Williams et al., 2019).In order to activate the seed we must plant and establish proper foundations, conditions of support and nurture as each seed is an inherent promise of growth, development and expansion. In order to address the concerns that create the need for protection we must create a foundation that is centred in matauraka, in Māori holistic ways of supporting and nurturing.

It is paramount that we wrap our korowai around these mothers, babies and whānau and be focused on healing as the ultimate outcome and activating the potential.  To do this we will need not one solution but many. Kotahitanga and Whanau Ora were the strategies highlighted most at the hui. Iwi partnerships with the government are another. They can exist together. We can address this crisis from more than one angle. The challenge will be to ensure that our localised initiatives, be they Whanau Ora, iwi, hapu, runaka or community will do something different than simply address change through accountability reforms, that we will manage holistic and matauraka Māori centred change. This supports the calls to action of every person at the hui and those of our academics working in this space who have for years been suggesting the Expert panel review is looking in the wrong direction.

As the Māori Inquiry moves forward I support the need for it, the need to engage in truth telling, the experiences of service users and of service providers and a critique of legal elements including the Family Court which holds so much of the power in these baby removals from whanau. I also support iwi tino rangatiratanga in deciding how the review intersects with already established work because we have work to do today and we can’t want until tomorrow for the outcomes of this review.

Under the provisions of 7AA I trust and honor the partnerships that we are locally developing in Te Wai Pounamu. Sir Mason Durie asked us to consider the question “is the system broken and can’t be fixed or do we need to design something to tailor our needs?” Perhaps the answer to his question differs from rohe to rohe, taking into account relationships and partnerships already built and established. The answer could be more than one answer and decided at a hapū and iwi level. The essential element for me is centring mother and baby, acknowledging the womb as the highest university and creating Te Ao Māori supports and systems with nurturing foundations that disrupt paternalistic approaches of child rescue. It doesn’t matter where these grow from, just solely that we start activating these seeds today.

Image credit: DanEvans


Keddell, E. (2017). The child youth and family review: A commentary on prevention: Policy Observatory, Auckland University of Technology. Retrieved from:

Williams, T., Ruru, J., Irwin-Easthope, H., Quince, K., & Gifford, H. (2019). Care and protection of tamariki Māori in the family court system. Te Arotahi. Retrieved from:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.