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Silence not a political option when it comes to family violence

Ang Jury

September 11, 2023

Dr Ang Jury ONZM is chief executive of Women’s Refuge.

OPINION: We have a general election looming before us in just a few short weeks, and no-one is talking about family violence. This is worrying me, and Women’s Refuge have written to the main political parties seeking their family violence policy.

We asked them to reveal their commitment, or lack thereof, for Te Ao Rerekura: National Strategy to eliminate family and sexual violence in Aotearoa. Alongside this we sought assurances of continuing support for Te Puna Aonui, the agency charged with progressing the strategy.

I can’t discuss their responses at this time, as directly at the time of writing we have yet to receive a substantive response from anyone, with one notable exception. Of course, they may still respond, although time is short. We will publicise their answers prior to the election to ensure that every-day New Zealanders have this critical information prior to casting their ballot.

The lack of response troubles me deeply, and it should concern all New Zealanders interested in safer whānau. Just stop a moment to reflect on the following; we sit atop the OECD domestic violence ratings, police admit a huge percentage of their frontline work are responding to family violence, our media regularly shares horrific stories of women and children harmed or killed at the hands of those meant to love them, and economic analyses over the years have conservatively estimated the cost of family violence in the region of $8 billion each year.

Against this backdrop, Women’s Refuge kaimahi across the country, along with countless others committed to this work, continue to see year on year rises in demand for our support.

And yet, in the face of all of this, and despite immense public interest and media attention at various times – generally in response to particularly grisly events – family violence doesn’t even seem to be figuring in conversation leading into this year’s general election. I can’t help wondering why this is? And I can’t help worrying about what this means for us as a country, but especially those tens of thousands of (mainly) women and children who desperately need this deeply destructive and corrosive social ill to stop!

In late 2021, after much public consultation and sometimes difficult discussion, the government committed to Te Aorerekura, an ambitious 25-year strategy to eliminate family and sexual violence. A dedicated agency, Te Puna Aonui, had been stood up to coordinate its implementation and a Minister had been appointed, and a process towards properly resourcing the family and sexual violence sector had begun.

The sector breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not because we all agreed with the strategy in its entirety – because we didn’t – but because we accepted the need to step back from seeking perfection and start focusing getting the mahi of change underway. We finally believed we had turned a corner in convincing the government that this was one issue that could and should be addressed. Not with a new bright shiny silver bullet -most of us acknowledge it’s not as simple as that, but with a carefully constructed long-term strategy. As was said at the time, if something is generations old, it is only reasonable to anticipate many years of sustained effort to achieve change.

Yet now, with a public and media squarely focused on ram raiding kids and retail crime over the past months, family violence – along with its cruel impact on countless New Zealand whānau   – seems destined to once again drop below the radar of public awareness. That is until the next horrific death hits the headlines of course.

I want to urge everyone talking with their prospective parliamentarians in the coming weeks to put these questions to them. Ask them if they’re committed to Te Aorerekura. Ask them if they’re willing to commit to resourcing the work needed. Ask them if they themselves are willing to push this ambitious but potentially world changing work forward.

And if you are right now asking why you should bother, just think about this. Family violence has been estimated by countless reliable studies to be experienced by one in three New Zealand women across their lifetime.

This means that the chances are high, very high, that those of you reading this will know someone living through this horror right now, whether you’re aware of it or not.

This means that one of your family members, friends, colleagues is going through something that I refuse to believe is inevitable. Surely that can’t be ignored. We, as a country, can and must do better.

But we can’t and won’t unless we finally eject partisan politics from this fight. Politicians of all stripes need to commit to this long-term project, not because it wins votes, but because it’s the right thing to do. Thousands of vulnerable women and children are counting on them and they, and we must not fail them this time.