Te Ropu Wahine Maori Toko i te Ora (Maori Women’s Welfare League), arose out of a desire on the part of Maori women throughout New Zealand for an organisation that would essentially be theirs – a potent force which could play an integral part in facilitating positive outcomes for Maori people through enabling and empowering Maori women and whanau.
In September 1951, some 90 women delegates, representing the founding branches of what is now known as the Maori Women’s Welfare League, assembled at Wellington’s Ngati Poneke Hall at the Inaugural Conference. A constitution was formally adopted and Princess Te Puea Herangi accepted an invitation to become patroness of the newly constituted League. Whina (later Dame Whina), Cooper was elected President of the League. A new executive took up office.
The Maori Women’s Welfare League – Te Ropu Wahine Maori Toko i te Ora – was the first national Maori organisation to be formed, it was also the first to provide Maori women with a forum in which their concerns could be aired, brought to a wider national audience and placed before the policy-makers of the day.
At the time, it was evident that New Zealand society was changing, which had a significant impact on Maori communities. Before the Second World War, Maori still lived predominantly in rural areas. From the 1930s many began to move to the towns and cities; this migration was accelerated during the war as Maori took up employment in wartime industries. That trend continued after 1945, becoming a major feature of New Zealand’s demographic development – the ‘post-war urban Maori migration’. By 1951 the proportion of Maori living in urban areas had reached 19 percent, more than double the pre-war figure of 9 percent.
As the urbanisation process increased, Maori faced a number of social problems adapting to their new lifestyle. There were no structures in place to advise and assist those whanau who had moved away from their papakainga (homelands). Their challenges included finding suitable housing, adapting to a cash economy, coping with poor health and racism. There were many pleas for the government at the time to assist, but it wasn’t until 1943, with a recommendation from the Maori War Effort Committee, that the National Service Department appointed six welfare and liaison officers (all women) to work with tribal and executive committees to assist with Maori social and economic problems. This initiative triggered the Native Affairs Department to introduce legislation that would clarify its role and its responsibilities for setting up a welfare organisation for Maori. Hence, the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945 came into force.
It was under this legislation where the first glimmer of the Maori Women’s Welfare League surfaced. More women welfare officers were appointed. Te Rangiataahua Royal, the ‘first controller’ of Maori Welfare, encouraged the welfare officers to organise into small local working groups to tackle health and welfare problems especially as they affected women and children. He also encouraged the welfare officers to look at the successful example of the Women’s Health League in setting up and operating the women’s groups and to consider amalgamating both groups into one national body covering all regions. After initial discussions, the Women’s Health League decided to remain independent.
Despite the withdrawal of the Women’s Health League, Te Ropu Wahine Maori Toko i te Ora Inaugural Conference went ahead in September 1951 where the constitution was adopted, the first president elected and the vision was set – the promotion of all activities that would improve the position of Maori, particularly women and children in the fields of health, education and welfare.
The National Office of Te Ropu Wahine Maori Toko i te Ora is located in Thorndon, Wellington. The two-story villa set amongst urban dwellings has been adapted to house offices for up to four staff, full kitchen facilities and a boardroom.