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Women's Refuge Collective Annual Conference

Issue date: 
Thursday, 16 October 2003
The Hon Dame Silvia Cartwright, PCNZM, DBE, QSO

E te Rangatira o tenei hui, tena koe.  Ki o tatou e hui mai nei tena tatou katoa.

To the Chair of this meeting, greetings.  To all who have gathered here, greetings.

Greetings to Roma Balzer, to all delegates, and to our international guests, some of whom have travelled a very, very long way to be here with us.

Thank you for inviting me here today on this significant occasion.  Any Women's Refuge conference is important, but when it coincides with the 30th anniversary of the movement it makes that occasion just that much more special.

I am honoured that you have asked me to close this conference and to open your AGM.  A look through your programme has revealed a list of high-calibre guest speakers.  I feel like I am in very good company indeed.

These are difficult times.  One would like to think that as a society, we are more enlightened than we were 30 years ago when the first Women's Refuge had its humble beginnings in Christchurch.  Yet, as recent events have so graphically illustrated, while we have made much progress, family violence remains a terrible reality for far too many New Zealand women and children.

Let me briefly look further back than 30 years ago.  Even before that first refuge opened its doors in Christchurch, women in many parts of the country needed help when violence in the home prevented them from participating fully in family life, let alone in the public life of their communities.  And women for whom violence then was an everyday occurrence were often shunned by the community.  They bore the shame of abuse, not the abusers.  As a child, I well remember a whispered conversation when my mother tried to help a family that was yet again being admitted secretly to a local Dunedin home run by the Salvation Army.  They lacked shelter, clothing, even adequate food, and urgently needed the assistance of their neighbours.  Yet they were shunned by polite society.  Communicating with them might mean that their shame rubbed off on the benefactor.

In the seventies, the more formalised Refuge movement began in a socio-economic environment that still denied the reality of family violence. Those involved in setting up the first refuges were seen as agitators, as anti-social family wreckers - not an easy environment to work in.  But through grit, determination, and sheer hard work, these obstacles were overcome and there are now more than 50 Women's Refuges around New Zealand, providing 24 hour support, advocacy and accommodation for women and their children who experience family violence.  There remains an atmosphere of shame around family violence, but increasingly that shame is placed where it should be - on the perpetrator, not the victim.  And there is broadly-based support for the women and particularly the children who have experienced violence in the home.

So over the past 30 years, the Women's Refuge movement has transformed itself from something of a social pariah to an integral and respected part of our society. There are many achievements, yet, the sheer fact that there remains a need for Women's Refuges, that the numbers using them are actually increasing, is a sad indicator of how much, or how little, we as a nation have progressed in 30 years.

It is not as if we haven't worked at becoming a less violent society.  Successive governments have taken many important steps to protect women and children.  I am thinking, for example, of the 1995 Domestic Violence Act.

Drawing on international models, the Act gave us a new definition of violence. As well as physical and sexual abuse it included psychological abuse such as intimidation, harassment, damage to property and threats of violence.  It also imposed compulsory programme attendance for the violent person, optional programmes for protected persons, including the children, and a new Protection Order that would be valid whether the woman left the violent person or continued to live with them. 

Not all of the changes have achieved what was perhaps desired, and an evaluation of the Act by the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Courts is currently underway.  The Act and its Regulations are being reviewed with the particular objective of finding a solution to the problem that many victims of domestic violence, particularly Maori and Pacific Island victims, do not apply for protection orders.  So work in this area is still ongoing.  But from my many years of legal experience in this area, no longer do we change the legislation, sigh with relief and ignore its outcomes for another 30 years.  The work done by advocates seeking to eliminate family-based violence results in more frequent evaluations and amendments, processes that were unheard of 30 years and more ago.

Another major initiative with which you will be only too familiar is, of course, Te Rito, the New Zealand Family Violence Prevention Strategy.  Te Rito was launched in March 2002 and covers all forms of family violence, such as partner abuse, child abuse or neglect, elder abuse or neglect, sibling abuse and parental abuse.

The 18 action areas outlined in Te Rito have deliverables that are due in varying timeframes through to June 2006.  In fact some action areas have already been completed and I am told others are making significant progress.

We now also have a new Crime Reduction Strategy.  Whilst women have not been specifically targeted as a priority group of the Strategy, some of the offences where they overwhelmingly represent the majority of victims such as family violence or sexual violence, have been identified as priority areas.  There will also be targeted interventions aimed at groups involved in or affected by crime as potential or actual offenders and as potential or actual victims, namely Maori, Pacific, at risk families, and those affected by drugs, alcohol and gambling.

Despite all these initiatives, or possibly because of them, there is little or no respite in the workload for our Women's Refuges.  As we try to grapple with one problem, a new one emerges.  Most recently reported, perhaps because it has been receiving a great deal of attention in recent times, is violence associated with the use of "P".  This is putting both battered women and women's refuge staff at increased risk.  I know the implications of P have been discussed at this conference and I look forward to catching up on the outcome.

Our ongoing social evolution towards a multicultural population has also brought its own set of new problems.  One of these was highlighted recently when the media reported that three young Indian women who were in arranged marriages committed suicide in the past year.

The Indian community, so the media reported, said all three were victims of domestic violence.  Some women in arranged marriages had heartbreaking stories to tell.  One woman told reporters she was frightened and felt like her life was in danger, and a second said her husband threatened: "I could put you in a condition that would make you go mad."  One of these women had spent time in a refuge but said she went back to her husband for the sake of her children - an all-too-familiar response to family pressure which puts other family members ahead of the safety of the woman and her children.  And a timely warning that some customs imported from other countries should not, simply because women might be forced to endure them in their own countries, be encouraged in New Zealand.

It is pleasing that there is now an organisation for Asian women, the Shakti Women's Refuge.  The hundreds of calls Shakti receives show this is clearly a growing problem and one that we cannot simply ignore.

Physical, emotional and financial abuse of older family members is also a disturbing issue, one which with careful monitoring, I hope will not become a new, major problem requiring special types of refuge support.

Looking at family violence overall, the figures remain depressing. 

  15% - 35% of New Zealand women have been hit or forced to have sex by their partner at least once in their lifetime.

  4% - 10% of New Zealand children experience harsh or severe physical punishment, with numerous deaths each year.

  18% of New Zealand children experience sexual abuse. Estimates are higher for girls: 25% - 30%.

I know that your own experiences and the issues raised at this conference make you only too sadly familiar with the numbers.  For you who work in the front line, each of those numbers has a face, and often that face is black and blue.  And New Zealand has recently featured in a UNICEF report, which suggested that our children are more in danger of being killed by abuse than in almost every other Western country. 

Such reports need careful assessment.  It would be irresponsible to accept the UNICEF figures at face value.  First, in New Zealand, we have a strong, civil society, committed to ending violence against women and children and successive governments that have conducted research, published statistics, and supported efforts to educate the public about the acute problems that such violence causes our nation.  These are the reasons at least in part that New Zealand seems so dramatically worse in its family abuse statistics than many other countries - we are open about the problem. 

Society generally condemns violence, and no longer tries to hide it as in my mother's day.  But take with a handful of salt international 'statistics' that suggest New Zealand is worse than other countries.  Many other countries are light years behind us in dealing with family violence.  Many do not collect the information in an honest and open way.  Many still say that their culture and tradition does not allow family violence.  Neither do ours - Maori or pakeha - but it happens nonetheless. 

 There remain however, too many instances of violence ending tragically in the injury or death of New Zealand children.  The community always reacts with deep concern and a renewed commitment to eliminate such violence but the situation for children remains such that the organisers of the annual Children's Day, a day that usually promotes play between adults and kids, feel the need this year to promote a message of a much more serious nature.  The message, one I wholeheartedly endorse, is that we need to protect our children.  Children's Day takes place this Labour weekend.  I encourage all New Zealanders to use the day to make a commitment to protecting our children from violence.

We are right to be ashamed.  And we can never afford to stop dealing openly and vigorously with the scourge of violence in our community.  But we are also entitled to say 'look how much we have achieved.  We have transformed the way society views family violence and we have made a difference for thousands of New Zealand families.'

International visitors here at this conference can no doubt endorse the fact that New Zealand is not alone in its struggle to end family violence.  It is therefore pleasing to see that the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2007 the United Nations Year for Violence Prevention. 

And last year the World Health Organisation launched a Global Campaign for Violence Prevention. The objectives of the campaign are to raise awareness about the problem of violence, to highlight the crucial role that public health can play in addressing its causes and consequences and encourage action at every level of society.

Internationally as well as locally, we can also look forward, albeit with some trepidation, to the release of initial results from a multi-country study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence Against Women.  The study aims to obtain reliable estimates of the prevalence of violence against women in different countries throughout the world, in a consistent, standardised manner which will allow for inter-country comparisons. 

The study wants to document the association between domestic violence against women and a range of health outcomes, and to explore and compare the coping strategies used by women experiencing domestic violence.  The aim is to use the findings nationally and internationally to advocate for an increased response to domestic and sexual violence against women.

Importantly, New Zealand is currently replicating the WHO study methodology and the interview process is all but complete.  The release next year of new, up to date information on violence against women in New Zealand will be timely indeed.  To be able to have this information in a format that makes international comparison meaningful makes the study even more relevant.

Lastly, I want to remind us all of one specific flow-on effect from family abuse situations.  Children who have witnessed violence at home are five times more likely to commit or suffer violence when they become adults.  If we needed any more motivation to keep up our united struggle for a non-violent society, then surely this is it.

It is important that I acknowledge how the strategies to eliminate violence have developed over the last few decades.  The line of attack includes legislation, the gathering of information and its dissemination, and the crafting of programmes designed to combat violence.  It is at least in part because of your work, and that of the women and men like you who have abhorred violence, recognised its tally on the lives of so many and its impact on society at large, that so much has been achieved.  The fact that the community now largely shares your views and supports your work is thanks to you.  The fact that so many women and children have been sheltered from violence and given the chance for a more normal future is thanks to you.  And the international trend towards assessing the level of family violence in the community and working towards its elimination is also due in part to the expert work done here in New Zealand, work that has been recognised and disseminated across many parts of the world.

I recognise the cost to the individuals that the battle has meant.  I thank you - each one of you for the work you have done.  Thankless work, unglamorous, and often dangerous work.  Yet a vital turning point for thousands of New Zealand women and their children, many of whom would have sunk without trace had you not been there to assist.

So I use this opportunity to express my gratitude on behalf of all New Zealanders, for all your wonderful work in the protection of women and children from violence.  You make a very important contribution to our society.  I applaud your commitment to your task, and the impact for the good that you have made, and will continue to make for all New Zealanders. 

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, kia ora koutou katoa.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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