Love Hurts: New Zealand’s Domestic Violence Issue.

When thinking about world peace, it is common to focus on external conflicts: easy to see between known enemies.  The last place people may think of when discussing mass violence in New Zealand, a place so commonly described as one of the safest, most socially-forward, and un-corrupt in the world.

The reality is that roughly every six minutes, police or refuge assistance is needed to save people from domestic violence.  In 2015 there were 100,000 police call-outs to family violence cases, with New Zealand Woman’s Refuge CEO Ang Jury saying that if all cases could be included, this figure would be more than double. 30-35 Kiwis are killed every year due to domestic violence, with It’s Not Okay reporting that half of all homicides in New Zealand are committed by a family member to the victim. While the majority of victims are women, domestic violence is not exclusive to them, with an average of 10 men and 9 children also contributing to this yearly death statistic. To put this into perspective, New Zealand only has 4.8 million people.

New Zealand is stuck in a cycle where people are repeatedly exposed to physical and mental abuse, learning that it is a normal and acceptable treatment to receive. It is a culture driven by the mantra “she’ll be right”, that represents strength as silently dealing with hardship and “sucking it up”, and portraying that showing personal struggle is a sign of weakness. The culture is now left with a large number of people who have never learnt to cope with their feelings positively, and therefore they are expressed through violence towards loved ones.

“She’ll be right” also tell us to stay out of other people’s business, stigmatizing victims asking for help, or outsiders seeing if those around them are okay. Domestic violence continues to thrive because the values of New Zealand’s culture allow it to.

In 2009, the horror of domestic violence was realized by David White, when his daughter Helen was shot and killed by her husband at a local racecourse in a central North Island town.  White is now fully committed to lifting this “dark cloud” over New Zealand and has been campaigning, working with the government, and writing books for the last nine years to ensure that what happened to his family does not happen to anyone else. White is a constant witness to the cracks in New Zealand’s culture and systems, directly seeing how the two let domestic violence continue.

White suggests New Zealand’s family violence issue may have stemmed from the after-effects of the WWII, where a “disproportionate number of [Kiwi] men [were] killed overseas compared to other countries”, bringing home an influx of mental health issues the country was not prepared for.  The focus now needs to be on progression.

Ignoring the issue is not exclusive to the everyday Kiwi, as there has also been a disappointing lack of action from the New Zealand government. According to White, they removed a drastic amount of funding from prominent anti-domestic violence organization It’s Not Okay, just as they began to gain traction around 2010.  The organization, like other anti-domestic violence initiatives in New Zealand, focusses on changing the attitudes of communities, which White says is the key to ending domestic violence.  It’s Not Okay’s message is consistent and clear: “family violence is not okay. It is okay to ask for help” with White adding, “it is okay to be the help,” too.

It’s Not Okay has reported that domestic violence costs the New Zealand economy between 4.1 and 7 billion NZD every year, so even when thinking beyond a humanitarian level, one would assume that change would be in the Government’s best interest. While there is a Domestic Violence Act in place that has been implemented since 1995 (and revised in 2012), this has led to no statistical improvement in the amount of known domestic violence cases.  The National Party (in power from 2008-2017) proposed to over-throw the Domestic Violence act last year with The Family and Whānau Violence Legislation Bill, with the aim to “strengthen family violence laws and build the legal framework necessary to deliver the wider component of the work programme”.  However, White says “creating or changing Laws will make no difference”, and that a solution lies in prevention, quoting Desmond Tutu by saying  “at some point, you have to stop pulling people out of the river, you have to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

New Zealand’s Mental Health system is also broken, reflected in a UNICEF report showing the nation has the highest adolescent suicide rate than any other OECD country. White has been extremely honest through his work and in his books, Helen and Family Violence, about how such tragedy never leaves your life, and how the dark places dense with guilt and helplessness can still consume everyone involved long after the violence is over.  A functioning mental health system is necessary to help the victims, wider family and even the perpetrators to become violence-free with the support and resources to do so.  While preventable factors such as being understaffed and underfunded remain, the system will remain broken.

Where the government fails, organizations like It’s Not Okay, White Ribbon NZ and Shine have to be commended for the fantastic work they do towards preventative measures, and their commitment to the idea that domestic violence is a taught behaviour that can be unlearned.  These not-for-profits feature campaigns to bring awareness to New Zealand’s domestic violence issue, such as White Ribbon NZ’s nation-wide motorcycle ride, that includes events in the towns they ride through, engaging Kiwis across the country. More targeted strategies are also utilized by these groups, such as Man Alive’s Boy’s Alive programme, that takes boys without positive male role models on an eight-week activity course, educating them on how to deal with their emotions and conduct positive relationships.

The work these organizations do is not enough to end domestic violence. However, what these organizations have right is that changing pre-existing attitudes within this intergenerational issue is the way forward. A policy focussed solution only functions on the assumption that families would want to convict their loved ones, when as Jury pointed out, less than half of all cases even get police call outs or refuge involvement. Therefore, only doing this (especially while cutting the funding to the organizations doing the groundwork) excludes the majority of victims and neglects New Zealand’s inter-communication issue.

This leaves the question of where to next.  White is optimistic about New Zealand’s change in government, saying they are much more proactive in preventative action against domestic violence.  The proof will be in how far the government will go.  This may look like going beyond funding organizations and having anti-domestic violence education throughout all of their schoolings.  Some may argue that conducting this at a primary school level is too young, however, a longstanding and consistent message is key when potentially undoing a lifetime of violent teachings.  If Kiwis do not have to actively seek information to know the warning signs of a dangerous relationship, the safest ways to leave, and where you can find help, we would already be equipped to take preventative measures ourselves before it becomes too late.

As a Kiwi woman, a message that I believe is missing when discussing family violence is that being in a tense and emotionally draining relationship is not what makes it passionate or interesting. I have repeatedly witnessed people, particularly women, who favour relationships where mental and/or physical abuse is prevalent, using excuses such as “it means they care”, and believing a textbook healthy relationship would be mundane or boring.  This illustrates the extent to which all of us have been conditioned to accept this as the norm. If they had previously had access to resources such as It’s Not Okay’s positive relationship questionnaire, maybe their decisions would have been different after knowing the serious situations that even less obvious behaviours can progress into.

Most importantly, I believe that no matter which political party is in power in New Zealand, they should not be able to disregard this issue.  Therefore, if the new government feels law changes are necessary to end domestic violence, it should be a bill that protects the funding of anti-domestic violence organizations who are doing the essential community work to fix this culture.

While ending domestic violence is the main goal, a focus is also needed on supporting those living with the consequences of the violence.  This includes fixing our mental health system, improving post-release rehabilitation support for prisoners, and beneficiary funding for grandparents who become the primary caregivers for their grandchildren.

Domestic violence is not a left or right wing problem, and it will not cease if it only has institutional support during election campaigns. It does not have a colour, and effects everyone including Māori and Pākehā, and even migrants to New Zealand. Just because it happens behind closed doors, it is no longer a private issue. This is a call to all New Zealanders to be open-minded about re-learning what it means to be a family and committing to ending this mass violence against our people, finally not allowing it to progress any longer.