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Let's face the issues and change our attitudes towards all forms of abuse

Liz Kinley - 10/11/06

During the 25 years I've spent working for the prevention of family violence and child abuse, I've become convinced that real change will only happen when, as a society, we change our attitudes and our behaviours towards all forms of abuse.

This is the only way we can begin to reverse our shocking record of violence.

When we read newspaper stories about women and children who've been assaulted, neglected or killed, many of us feel confusion and despair. We can’t understand how this can happen in a country like New Zealand, yet it does. We live in a society that doesn't acknowledge the real issues behind the violence, and therefore we let it continue.

Family violence is not caused by poverty, substance addictions, or stress. These issues may exacerbate the violence, but they are not the root cause of it.

People who abuse have the fundamental belief that it is OK to hit women and children to control or discipline them or to relieve what may feel like unbearable tensions.

The argument that poverty causes violence ignores the fact that physical, sexual and emotional violence happens in families throughout all socio-economic groups.

I believe that most parents have a dream for their children and start out wanting the best for them. Yet, at the same time, our society accepts violence as an every day part of family life for many of our children. When we become aware that someone within our family, neighbourhood or community is being hurt, we tell ourselves that it's none of our business and we don’t like to be involved. We're upset when women or children die, but our horror dissipates as the news moves on.

Some of us believe that if a woman has been beaten by her partner then she must have deserved it, she must enjoy it or she would leave, or that her partner will change. Some of us think it's our right to hit children, even though hitting a child can escalate into severe abuse.

This is wrong, and whether or not our intentions are good, we are letting the violence continue with these misplaced beliefs.

Last year, the government established the Ministerial Taskforce for Action on Violence within Families. The Taskforce has members from the highest levels of the government and non-government sectors. Its vision is for a New Zealand where all families have healthy, respectful, stable relationships free from violence.

One of the Taskforce's first recommendations to Cabinet was for a long-term prevention campaign to change social attitudes towards family violence: to transform our society into one with zero tolerance for family violence, including child abuse and neglect. The budget for the first three years is $11.5 million. It's the first time such a campaign has happened here, and in fact New Zealand is one of just a handful of countries across the world undertaking such a bold initiative.

Jigsaw, of which I am Chief Executive (Strategic Operations), is totally committed to this campaign. We're delighted to be one of the national non-government organisations already contracted by the government to scope, plan and deliver messages that will change social attitudes to violence in our communities. Jigsaw is looking forward to working on this alongside, and as part of, our ‘kids are unbeatable’ campaign that is currently running in partnership with The Body Shop.

The government campaign will not be one of brochures and billboards. We need to go much broader and deeper than that. We need to get people thinking, talking and changing their attitudes and behaviours towards family and child abuse. This campaign will be about communication and conversation, about community-driven projects, and about reaching people everywhere. We need to include people and organisations across New Zealand, and that includes encouraging the private sector to get involved.

Jigsaw’s starting place with our work on the campaign will be to ask about what works to change violent and abusive behaviour, and also about the positive attitudes and behaviours in families that flourish, and nurture their children.

We want to promote opportunities for ordinary New Zealanders to consciously consider the kind of family environment they want to create for their children to grow up in. We will always help families make changes when violence is part of their family life, but we also want to help parents, partners, families and communities take action before violence starts.

The first and vital step in preventing abuse and violence is to change social attitudes and behaviour so that violence isn’t tolerated at all. It’s a big task, but it is possible.

Some of the foundations of the national campaign to prevent family violence are already in place. The Ministry of Social Development will shortly release the first stage of its research into the attitudes of offenders and their partners and children. Community groups are getting training in how to highlight family violence issues through the media, and student journalists are getting training in reporting on family violence.

The work of the Ministerial Taskforce on Violence within Families builds on a depth of experience and expertise developed over many years by non government agencies, communities and government working together. The Taskforce’s leadership provides a real and practical opportunity for us to develop a comprehensive approach to preventing family violence and child abuse across all our communities. It will make it possible for all New Zealanders to get honest about how and why family violence continues to destroy lives, and to be part of taking action in their families and communities to turn that around.

My hope is that this campaign will be the spearhead of a strong, lasting social movement that transforms our society and leads to New Zealand being recognised across the world as a country where families flourish and their children can thrive.

We need a social movement that crosses the generations, that involves all New Zealanders, and that is lasting and genuine. Making the changes will take time and a sustained commitment, but we can do it, and I believe that for the sake of our children and families we will.

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