REMEMBER: Sonja Davies

By Laurie Hilsgen, Carers NZ Co-Founder

I never met the iconic social and women's rights campaigner Sonja Davies, but she played an important role in the development of New Zealand's carer movement and the national charitable trust that is now Carers NZ.

Sonja died in 2005, years after I contacted her when, as a family carer living in rural Northland, I felt dismayed by the lack of help for people like me.

I asked the social worker at the hospital how others coped, as I was struggling and thought others must be too.

"They just do," she said.

And that was the start of the journey towards our network, which 25 years later numbers 50,000 and is part of a global movement to recognise, celebrate, and assist the world's growing community of family caregivers.

Sonja never knew about her role in the formation of Carers NZ, but she is part of our history along with so many others.

Back in the 1990s Sonja was in the news a bit. As a young woman she'd had tuberculosis, so required support sometimes for the condition that plagued her for much of her life. And she assisted with caring for her daughter Penny after she developed Motor Neurone Disease.

I read an interview in which Sonja commented on the demands of caring. So I wrote to her asking for her advice about how we might go about setting up a support organisation for family carers in NZ.

I didn't get a reply but heard Sonja had been interviewed on National Radio, commenting that people needed to work together more instead of setting up new organisations.

I was sorry Sonja had talked about the idea of a carer organisation on the radio instead of getting back to me. I spent a lot of time on that letter. But she did put a member of New Zealand's national home care association in touch, another family carer, saying we might have much in common. And that led to Dorothy McCaw writing to me from the opposite end of New Zealand, agreeing that carers needed better information and support. And the rest is history.

At Sonja's funeral service in 2005, then Prime Minister Helen Clark described Sonja as a "very great New Zealander" who overcame huge obstacles in her life. 

“She began work at 14 years of age and was married and divorced by the age of 17.”

”At 22 years of age she had a young baby, was diagnosed with TB and learned that her fiance had been killed in the war.” 

”Later in life her husband and two children were to predecease her. Her personal courage and determination to go on and on were extraordinary attributes.” 
— Helen Clark

Helen Clark said Sonja took on the tough issues and challenges long before they were popular, such as championing women's rights and throwing herself into campaigns against apartheid, nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War in the 1960s. 

Thank you Sonja for making the effort to connect Dorothy and I all those years ago.

Sometimes good things come about in strange ways.

Sonja's indirect introduction to Dorothy led to our journey to form Carers NZ. I would never have known Dorothy without Sonja. Without that introduction I'm sure neither of us would have had the fortitude to set up a national movement for carers from the pointy ends of New Zealand, juggling caring for our partners with money worries in Dot's case, and work and youth in mine.

That's another story. But given this campaign is called She Cares, we pay tribute to Sonja's legacy as we celebrate the role of women in caring roles and leaders who have helped us along the way.