Domestic violence ‘epidemic’ in New Zealand

New Zealand is suffering an epidemic of violent partner abuses leaving services unable to cope.

Protesters marched on November 25, 2013 raising awareness about rising abuse rates [H. Johnston/Getty Images]

“Some make it through the night and call us back the next day and others we don’t hear from again,” says Rhonda Cox-Nissen, manager of Eastern Refuge, a women’s shelter based in Auckland.

According to the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, a research group at Auckland University, more than 800,000, or 35 percent of New Zealand’s population, have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. When psychological or emotional abuse is included, the figure increases with 55 percent of women reporting violence from their spouse or partner.

But due to the sheer volume of numbers, every day hundreds of battered and abused women are being turned away from women’s shelters across New Zealand.

Experts say that shelters nationwide are facing funding shortages, and state support services are weak. An alarming statistic when considering violence against women in New Zealand has reached epidemic levels. 

“I endured seven years of beatings and mental abuse before building the courage to call the refuge line and ask for help. Asking for help meant leaving behind my house and pretty much everything I owned,” Grace, a mother of three children, told Al Jazeera.

Grace is now staying in a women’s shelter in Auckland. Her name has been changed to protect her identity. “I was in touch with the crisis line and refuge for three years before I made the decision to finally leave my home.”

I endured seven years of beatings and mental abuse before building the courage to call the refuge line and ask for help. Asking for help meant leaving behind my house and pretty much everything I owned.

by - Grace, domestic abuse victim

Lack of funding 

In this stage of her recovery, shelter counsellors say Grace relies upon a series of essential services including continued psychological counselling and childcare assistance. Later professional training will help her seek work and eventually be able to support her children on her own.

Human rights advocates say the New Zealand government needs to allocate more funding to frontline services including a domestic violence crisis hotline, women’s shelters, and a wide range of support services which can help victims rebuild their lives.

Jackie Blue, an Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, tells Al Jazeera: “For the last couple of years the New Zealand government has been focusing on the economy, the economy, the economy. But we need to prioritise family violence – predominately against women and children.”

Blue, a former member of the parliament, understands from first-hand experience intimate partner violence. Thirty years ago, when she was a young doctor, Blue’s boyfriend used to beat her.

“I was ashamed that I could get myself into that position. I was angry at myself and didn’t know who I could talk to,” 58-year-old Blue says.

New Zealand has historically led the way in promoting women in government life. It was also the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and has had two female prime ministers. Despite this record and its high ranking in global economic and quality of life indices, women’s rights experts say domestic violence is a hidden plague, blighting New Zealand families.

“We think that we have come as far as we need to in this journey and that we are a progressive society so people don’t really scratch beyond the surface and try to understand what it actually means to be a woman in New Zealand,” Polly Pena, manager of Shahkti Community Council in Wellington, tells Al Jazeera. Shahkti is a non-profit organisation, offering a wide range of services including a 24-hour hotline, legal services, and a safe house for migrant women in New Zealand.

Wilful ignorance

“Police are walking away from many domestic violence incidents and not treating them as crimes,” said Heather Henare, the chief executive of the Women’s Refuge, which is based in Wellington.

Henare says that although 70 percent of the violence that police deal with is intimate partner violence, police officers don’t have enough training to recognise the signs of domestic violence and they don’t always do what is needed to give a woman an opportunity to tell her side of the story.

“Police officers need to understand that a woman may not be able to tell them what has happened to her if the abuser is in the room or around. Without that kind of testimony, the police usually won’t initiate an investigation or collect physical evidence,” Henare said. She says that police practices are re-victimising women and discouraging them from reporting domestic violence because they feel that they won’t be believed and protected.

Police officers need to understand that a woman may not be able to tell them what has happened to her if the abuser is in the room or around. Without that kind of testimony, the police usually won't initiate an investigation or collect physical evidence.

by - Heather Henare, chief executive of the Women's Refuge

Bridget Nimmo, the Family Violence Manager for the New Zealand Police says that police receive family violence education throughout their recruitment and training programmes.

Figures from the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse show 95,080 family violence investigations were launched in 2013 but, of those investigations, only 37,880 or 40 percent of them were recorded as offences. Additionally, the number of people being charged has dropped to less than half of the total number of cases investigated.

“I called police more than 20 times over a 3-year period and the police only filed charges once against my partner,” said Grace.

Critics say that the police are being pressured by political leaders to keep the official numbers of recorded domestic violence cases down to give the impression that the government is addressing the problem.

Tony Bouchier, the president of the Criminal Bar Association, says police are not arresting domestic violence suspects because they know that they will have to abandon some prosecutions. 

“They [the police] don’t have money to pay for prosecutors and staff to pursue the growing number of cases,” Bouchier said. “I think it’s purely to do with money. It’s not only the police but it’s the whole justice sector that is being starved of money and as result is not performing.”

There are 371 police stations throughout New Zealand and according to Nimmo, 52 family violence coordinators. These family violence coordinators review cases to make sure proper police procedures are followed and refer victims to agencies in and outside of the government.

However, Henare says that isn’t happening on a regular basis and that coordinators are either too overloaded with cases to review all of them or don’t have enough expertise in handling domestic violence cases to do their jobs.

No place to go

Like Grace, hundreds of women remain in the shelters for months because as shelter organisers and women’s rights activists say, the Ministry of Social Development and Housing New Zealand, the two governmental agencies that assess and assign housing for victims of domestic violence, are making them wait too long to get housing assistance.

“We can’t kick women out of the shelter and the delays at Housing New Zealand force us to keep the women for months instead of the 6-week emergency period and then offer other women a safe place to stay,” said Cox-Nissen.

New Zealand has about 60 women’s shelters and each can house 3-5 women a night, some with their children. That is about 200-300 women and children a night nationwide. However Pena said that with the growing rate of domestic violence the New Zealand government needs to allocate as much as 10 times the resources and funding to deal with the issue.

“There is wilful ignorance about domestic violence here.  We see it in the lack of funding for services and policies that erode the rights of survivors to get out of violent situations,” Pena said.

Until the funding is found and the issue prioritised by the politicians, Pena and others predict that abused women, and their children, will continue to fall through the gaps in New Zealand’s police, court, and housing systems.

Follow Halima Kazem on Twitter: @HalimaKazem

Source: Al Jazeera