ECE Diamonds

Sonja Davies – founder, visionary and activist


Life member 1976
President 1964-1975
Patron 1995-2005

Women’s rights campaigner and Labour MP Sonja Davies worked tirelessly for decades to convince politicians that quality childcare was beneficial for children, necessary for families, and deserving of Government support. She believed in unified action to drive change. 

Childcare was a controversial topic in the 1960s. While growing numbers of mothers wanted or needed to work, many people believed childcare was bad for young children. It didn’t help that the quality of childcare services was a mixed bag with some good, but also some very bad services.

In 1960, the Labour Government, in response to reports of dismal conditions in two Auckland daycare nurseries, imposed regulations on all childcare centres. Sonja, who was then president of the Nelson Day Nursery Committee, supported quality childcare. But with no funding or support to upgrade facilities, equipment, train or pay qualified staff, she knew many of the new regulations would be impossible to achieve.

Sonja booked a meeting with the Minister of Social Welfare who grumbled that she was the fifth childcare person to call on him that month. “If only you all joined in one group, it would be easier,” he said. Sonja went to the Department of Child Welfare, obtained the names of all childcare centre committees or owners and wrote to all of them. On 14 October 1963, the first meeting of the New Zealand Association of Childcare Centres was held.

With the new organisation’s new vice-president Jessie Donald, Sonja toured the North Island to assess the state of childcare around the country and recruit members. While some were good, others were “really bad… with little idea of children’s’ needs in a properly run daycare centre, no education programme and little or no play equipment... After visiting about 10 of these duds, Jessie and I stood on the pavement and asked were we doing the right thing? Might the anti-childcare lobby have some justification? Then we remembered the good centres we had seen and knew our struggle must be to ensure there were more of those.”

Sonja and Jessie came away convinced that training staff was a top priority, and over the next few years devoted much effort to launching the first formal childcare training scheme: The Royal Society of Health Child Care Certificate.

The other ongoing battle was convincing politicians that quality childcare was good for children, necessary to allow mothers to take a more active part in life outside the home, and deserving of Government support, beneficial legislation and funding.

Recalling a conversation with MP and later-to-be Prime Minister Bill Rowling, Sonja said: “I described the splendid women who work for peanuts to care for the children of women for a variety of reasons were in the paid workforce, but I could tell it was not getting across…. Many politicians have a very conservative view of childcare. I think this is partly due to plain ignorance of the needs of children and their mothers.”

It was to be a decades-long battle, taken up by many members of our organisation. While much progress has been made, it continues to this day.

Sonja founded the New Zealand Association of Childcare Centres in 1963, was president 1964 to 1975, was made a life member in 1976, and was patron 1995-2005. She died in 2005.

This article is an abridged version from Te Rito Maioha’s book on its life members and their work. You can read Sonja's full story and those of other ECE champions:

Life Stories on the Frontline: Growing a childcare movement in Aotearoa
Ngā kohinga kōrero a te aumangea: Kia mana te ara kōhungahunga ki Aotearoa