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Living in fear: Inside our domestic violence problem

Wednesday 16th December 2015

We have the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world. What can be done to bring the numbers down? By Mava Moayyed.

Annika* met Simon the day before her father died. “We met at a bar,” she half laughs, shaking her head. “I was shopping for my dad’s suit for his funeral, and this dude overheard and came over.”

Simon – tall, charismatic and covered in tattoos – told Annika he’d lost his mother. He could relate to how she felt, he could share her pain. “In hindsight, when I look back at it, he could smell how vulnerable I was. In terms of emotional reserves, I had very little.”

The chance meeting in the bar led to Annika spending the next year of her life in an emotionally, financially and physically abusive relationship. She spent another two years trying to get Simon out of her life.

“Do you know what? It was probably my first big relationship. I had had other ones that were pretty non-eventful. It was definitely the first time I had ever lived with someone, just me and him.

“Quite a few people had actually said to me ‘don’t go there with that dude’.”

Domestic violence is one of New Zealand’s most serious social and human rights issues. We have the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world.

One in three women here experience abuse from their partners at some point in their lifetime [PDF]. That’s a huge chunk of our population burdened with psychological, emotional and physical trauma from someone they trusted.

The country’s Domestic Violence Act is currently under review, with the Government looking at court processes as well as the way domestic violence is classed as a criminal act. At the top of the cliff, a pilot programme headed by Women’s Refuge is running in high schools in an effort to educate young people about healthy relationships and attitudes towards women.

Women’s Refuge youth development advisor Ruth MacIntyre says abuse in young people’s relationships is especially dangerous because it can set a precedent for a lifelong pattern of violence.

I was used to making quite strong decisions, and good decisions. Making this bad choice and everyone seeing it, I was so embarrassed that I didn’t say anything. I just hid it. I didn’t want to worry people, either.

“It's really big. A lot of perpetrators of violence tell us their pattern of thinking has always been that way. That’s how they’ve thought about relationships ever since they’ve been in them. Each relationship that they get into, they’re behaving the same, but then they up the ante when control ceases,” she says.

Violence can be carried out by anyone, but in Aotearoa the majority of the perpetrators are men, and their victims female. More than 80 percent of those arrested for domestic violence are men and 76 percent of intimate partner violence-related deaths between 2009 and 2012 were perpetrated by men.

Last year, police responded to more than 100,000 family violence incidents – that’s about one every five minutes. As shocking as the numbers are, police estimate that only 18 per cent of domestic violence incidents are actually reported, leaving most hidden under the surface layer of New Zealand’s clean, green image.

In hindsight, Annika feels like it took a long time to report the abuse largely because she was ashamed it was even happening.

“I was used to making quite strong decisions, and good decisions. Making this bad choice and everyone seeing it, I was so embarrassed that I didn’t say anything. I just hid it. I didn’t want to worry people, either.”

The warning signs were there early, but after the death of her father, Annika found it hard to say no to Simon’s ever-intensifying behaviour. “He was just everywhere. He was immediately texting hundreds of times. He was coming around all the time; I was the centre of his universe. I think he said ‘I love you’ within like four days.”

The psychological and emotional abuse came first and, after they moved in together, the financial abuse started. Simon never worked but often spoke about a “big inheritance” that was supposedly on its way.

“All of sudden, I found myself having to pay both our rents. He’d go out, take my eftpos card and get drunk.”

Annika racked up over $10,000 of debt. The promise of getting paid back hung over her head, making it even harder to leave. At one point, Simon was stealing money from Annika’s credit card and giving it back to her, pretending that he was settling his debts. As time went on, the financial abuse began to merge with physical violence.

“We had gone shopping for kitchen stuff and I remember saying to him, ‘You’ve got to help with this money, I’m just drowning. I can’t take on all this debt.’ He was opening a frying pan and said he ‘slipped’ and smacked me in the face with it.”

Simon apologised profusely, trying to convince Annika it was a mistake. From that moment on, she was scared of him and felt even more trapped in his hold.

“I knew that it was becoming incredibly bad and in the back of my mind I had this line in the sand that was, ‘If he hits me, I’ll leave’. I was actually hoping for it because I thought it would be my way out. But the line shifted and, as I saw the line shifting further away, I lost control. There was no line.”

The beatings continued. Annika taught herself not to flinch, not to make eye contact, to just apologise. “I started to think that love was passion and being passionate meant this. That took me so long to unlearn.”

THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM

Ruth McIntyre from Women’s Refuge says the high rate of domestic violence in New Zealand boils down to one key concept: gender equality.

“Domestic violence is not prejudice; it’s not just one sector of society that experiences it and that’s why it relates back to how men think and talk about women.”  

 

Without even knowing it, we reinforce gender stereotypes right from childhood, like pink for girls and blue for boys, says MacIntyre. These stereotypes continue into ideas of masculinity versus femininity, power versus submissiveness.

“It’s a sense of male entitlement. This is really hard for people to come to grips with because it’s ingrained in almost all Western societies. A lot of people really hate hearing that because they think, ‘You’re just a bunch of crazy feminazi women’. But that’s not what feminism means – what they’re thinking of is misandry.”

In October, Radio Sport host Tony Veitch posted a Facebook status attacking people for bringing up his history of domestic abuse. In it, he spoke about making it through a 'hideous relationship' and having to rebuild his life and career. The post has since been removed, but many were already shocked by his apparent lack of self-awareness and remorse.

“The thing that really surprised us was the amount of men that came up batting for Tony Veitch and then become completely abusive, violent and threatening towards any woman who tried to explain what was wrong,” says MacIntyre.

It’s hard to see your own position of privilege when you’re not personally being oppressed, says MacIntyre, meaning New Zealanders can quickly become defensive when called out about the problem.

We need to be doing more with our boys when they’re younger to try and tackle dangerous conceptions of women as early as possible.”

MacIntyre and her team have secured funding for a pilot programme that will run in schools around Wellington. She wants it to fill a gap in young people’s education by focusing on equality and healthy relationships, rather than just sex and consent.

“A lot of our programmes right now are ad hoc and they’re based on something that’s a big issue at the time, like the Roast Busters, for example. While they address the issue of consent, they don’t address the underlying shitty behaviours these guys had towards women.

“It’s about getting kids to think about how they talk about women.”

TACKLING IT FROM THE TOP

Minister of Justice Amy Adams says the decision to review the country’s Domestic Violence Act, which was first established in 1995, comes down to the fact our abuse statistics are “horrific”.

“They are a national shame and I’m not prepared to be Minister of Justice and not try and do something about that,” she says.   

“I believe that family violence is one of the most significant social evils facing us. It’s not only the harm that occurs in the violence, but also the downstream ramifications of children growing up in violent homes.”

The Act was open to public submissions earlier this month and Adam says there was a “real degree of enthusiasm” around the proposed changes.

Right now the Law Commission is reviewing the court processes for domestic violence cases and Adams expects their report to be released next month. Depending on their findings, the legal system could introduce alternative processes for handling domestic violence so that victims don’t have to go through police or courts at all, recognising that some people don’t want the perpetrator arrested – they just want it to stop.

“I can imagine that some of what we come out with will get a lot push back from those who are used to and familiar with working the way it does, particularly the legal profession.”


READ: 10 domestic violence myths busted


Adams also wants to create a whole new class of criminal offence for family violence, something she thinks will highlight the seriousness of the crime.

“If you beat up your partner, you might be charged with assault or murder, but nowhere in our law is there a crime of committing family violence. To me that’s wrong. To me we need to send a signal that obviously any assault is unacceptable, but when you’re assaulting someone who is in a position of trust, that brings an added level of repugnancy.”

Adams suspects that while we know it’s bad, Kiwis don’t truly grasp the size of the issue – whether  it’s the social ramifications or its economic burden on the country

“We’re spending 1.4 billion dollars a year as a government on family violence, but I don’t think we’re spending that very effectively, and certainly [we’re] not getting enough of a reduction in numbers for that kind of spend,” she says.   

“We need everyone to have culture of completely zero tolerance, and we need all of society to take ownership of this problem.”

THE WHEEL OF POWER AND CONTROL

It began like the start of a romantic drama. When Saiba* was 18 years old, she met a boy named Vinny and fell in love. “It was my very first relationship,” she says. “His happiness was my first priority and I sacrificed a lot.”

The relationship was rocky from the start but she didn’t recognise it was abusive until Vinny become physically violent about a year in. Saiba loved reading, nature walks and stimulating discussions with her friends, but as the relationship went on, she felt herself slip away.

“It was really bad. I could deal with the physical abuse because the pain and hurt was visible. I had sprained body parts, concussions, swollen face, but that was bearable. I knew what hurt and where it hurt. What I couldn’t bear was the emotional and psychological abuse.”

Saiba is originally from South Asia and didn’t have a strong network of family and friends in New Zealand. The isolation made it hard for her to leave, even when she recognised the relationship was dangerous. Vinny would tell her she was worthless, that she would not amount to anything, and she was crazy for thinking something was wrong.

“I lost my self-esteem. I started to believe every word he threw at me. I started to behave in ways that were damaging to myself and others. I was always hurting, either physically or mentally. I thought this was love and I deserved it.”

I lost my self-esteem. I started to believe every word he threw at me. I started to behave in ways that were damaging to myself and others. I was always hurting, either physically or mentally. I thought this was love and I deserved it.

Saiba tried to leave Vinny several times but, because of the lack of support, found herself back with him after a short while. “What made it harder is the structural violence in New Zealand society. If I did not have a job, a car and a potential career, my only choice would have been to stay with him.”

She described leaving as a “gradual” process, one that only started when she began studying and meeting new people. “The love and acceptance of my friends made me realise that I was once a beautiful soul. I am trying to be that person again.”

While volunteering with Shakti NZ several years ago, Saiba came across the power and control wheel and realised that the pattern of abuse mirrored her life. It was a moment of clarity and strength. She told a close friend about her abuse and started to get help. While she’s come a long way since her years with Vinny, Saiba doesn’t believe she’ll ever be with anyone again.

“I can’t trust people anymore and I have taken an oath of celibacy. I know that I would never get into another relationship. I would have to deal with a lot of demons and I’d rather focus on helping society.”

While a lot has been taken away from Saiba, the experience has given her a newfound passion for women’s safety. She discovered she’s a feminist at heart and now wants to help create a violence-free society.

“This experience has also brought me closer to my faith, Islam. As I start to understand what it means to be a Muslim, I am learning to forgive him, myself, and society at large.”

‘NOT YOUR SHAME TO CARRY’

While it might puzzle some people that many victims don’t immediately leave their abuser at the first signs of violence, most victims find themselves trapped in a cycle of emotional and psychological control.

Annika and Saiba were both made to feel worthless by their abusers; that leaving would mean they were cruel, selfish people. Importantly, leaving an abuser can be an incredibly dangerous decision. Statistics show that 50 per cent of violent partner-related deaths occur at the time of actual or intended separation.

Annika remembers one of the light bulb moments that pushed her to leave Simon. While working as a teacher, one of her students noticed her battered face.

“My jaw was swollen and it was a bit black around my eye but I had to go to school, it was close to exam time. One of my girls looked at me and said ‘Aw miss, no.’”

The tone in her student’s voice and the sadness in her eyes still moves Annika. “I thought ‘Fuck no, I can’t do that to these girls who I care about so much.’ She recognised it because she knew. She’d seen it so many times.”

Annika called her brother and a few close friends. They went and picked up all her things from the house she and Simon shared. She changed cell phone numbers, her email address, and blocked more than 20 Facebook accounts he had set up to get in touch with her.

“I remember one time I had 17 voicemail messages.I had just left my phone on silent for a few minutes. It was draining.”

LISTEN: Why is domestic violence so bad in New Zealand? 

After years of Simon continuing to contact and threaten Annika, a friend finally convinced her to go to Women’s Refuge. Within two weeks, she had a protection order and started therapy for the years of abuse she had sustained. While she could have taken Simon to court, Annika didn’t want to drag the process out any longer – she just wanted him out of her life.

“He’s in jail for fraud now. It’ll be years, hopefully.”

The relationship has left Annika with lasting scars, but it’s also proven something her family and friends knew all along. “I learnt that I’m fucking strong. I went through my dad’s death, an ectopic pregnancy, and this awful violent relationship and at the end of it, I got a whole bunch of tools and a whole lot of courage to say ‘That’s not right.’”

Both Saiba and Annika hid their abuse for a long time. The shame they felt kept them trapped. When both women finally reached out, they were met with love and support and the power the abusers had over them slowly subsided. They’ve both began to rebuild the lives broken by violence.

“Choose someone. Someone older and smart, who you trust [to confide in]. Keep one person in the loop. If you don’t feel like you want to break up with them, just make sure someone knows where you are and what’s going on your head,” says Annika.

“Please reach out to others who can help,” Saiba says. “This is not something you have to fight alone and people will understand you. This is not your shame to carry and you don’t have to live with it for the rest of your lives. You are anything but weak – you are bearing so much pain. That is strength.”

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, dial 111. For more information and support when dealing with violence in your life, call the crisis line on 0800 733 843 or visit the Women’s Refuge website.

You can also call Shakti New Zealand’s 24 hour crisis line on 0800 742 584 or visit their website.



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