Justice Summit: addressing family and sexual violence

Tēnā koutou nga rau rangatira mā.
Mihi aroha ki a koutou ko Ngati Toa Rangatira me ng
ā mana whenua o tēnei rohe, tēnā koutou.
Tae mai ki a t
ātou i tēnei hui ki te whai ture tika me te haepapa kaha mo tēnei whenua o Aotearoa.
Kia ora mai t
ātou katoa.

I am privileged to hold the position of Parliamentary Under-secretary to the Minister of Justice on family and sexual violence. That I am the first person to hold a role in our Executive completely focused on these issues is a great honour and a symbol of how committed this Government is to genuinely change things.

I want you to know that this is not a job for me. This is my life’s passion. I bring to this work all too many stories of gender-based abuse and violence. At the moment one in four women, one in seven men and up to one in two trans people will experience sexual abuse in this country.

One in four women experience psychological or physical abuse from their partners in their lifetime. Police are called out to a family violence incident every four minutes and estimate that only 20-25% of incidents are reported.

Like most of you, I carry stories here from experience; my own, of others I love and those I have worked with through Women’s Refuge and Wellington Sexual Abuse Helpline. The people of these stories who have been victimised by what is predominantly men’s violence are from all ethnicities, of all ages, genders and sexualities, with different abilities and disabilities, and from every economic stratum.

There is growing awareness in the community that addressing family and sexual violence is one of our greatest opportunities to improve wellbeing. This is because family and sexual violence has a major impact on physical and mental health; the impact of the trauma on children can have terrible lifelong consequences, including reducing their educational potential; it’s a major driver of homelessness and unemployment and suicide. Women who are victims of severe intimate partner violence may be as much as eight times more likely to attempt suicide.

Family and sexual violence is one of the most significant, immediate and underlying drivers of crime. Forty percent of the police’s work is family violence. Eighty percent of the young people appearing before the Youth Court have been victims of family violence. Over half of the women and almost half the men in prison have been sexually assaulted.

An effective justice system will keep victims safe by holding people to account for their violence while supporting them to change. Sadly, our current justice system all too often fails to keep victims safe and fails to support perpetrators to change. I have seen the abuse of partners and ex-partners carry on for years, enable by our justice system. I have known women and children murdered, with protection orders in place, because our justice system failed to understand the nature of the violence. I have seen sexual offenders go on to reoffend because our justice system could not deliver a conviction, and it is so re-traumatising that many victims do not report. I have seen the characterisation of sexual and family violence offenders as “dangerous monsters” – despite the fact they are usually our friends and family – silence and marginalise victims. I have seen people who have chosen to use violence refuse to take responsibility, lie to and manipulate friends, family, police, social workers, and the court to further persecute their partner or children.

We have a history of minimising and at times colluding with gender-based violence.

I have also seen the pain and grief in Māori communities at the mass incarceration of their men, and increasingly their women too, which has exacerbated rather than reduced the harm. This has been done to Māori.

We need to take this violence seriously and hold people accountable. But we need to recognise that we don’t build safety by sending people to prison. It is a measure for short term safety in the absence of more effective options, but ultimately it feeds more violence. What we are doing is just not working.

But that is why we are all here. To do things differently and to uplift the wellbeing of all people – Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata.

We need to move beyond soundbites and listen carefully to people’s stories, to create a truly safe and effective justice system. We also need to ensure that this conversation understands that our criminal justice system is a product of colonisation, and that the criminal justice system is deeply interconnected with all other government policies and our wider society’s values.

There is so much we need to do. We need to do more than just respond: we need to prevent this violence. Currently government only spends 1.5 percent of our family and sexual violence funding on prevention, less than 10 percent on early intervention and only 2 percent on rehabilitation. Almost all the money goes to police, hospitals and prisons. No wonder we’re here.

Instead of waiting for someone to call the police, we need everyone to know what their role is in responding to and preventing family and sexual violence, and to feel confident doing it. This includes schools, doctors, workplaces, friends and family, marae, police and courts.

We need to focus on holding the people choosing to use violence to account rather than blaming victims. We need to find ways of doing this that keep victims safe, and support people to change rather than entrenching the violence. And we need to ensure that our responses work for Māori, first. We also need to remove the barriers for Pasifika, migrant, LGBTQI, people with disabilities, and recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

That’s a big step from where we are. But the rationale is in the stories you’re about to hear, from victims, perpetrators and those working in the current system. Many of their stories overlap, as you’ll see. They tell us that the business as usual ways of responding to family and sexual violence aren’t working.

There’s a lot of emotion in these stories. This is an emotional issue for many of us. It’s definitely an emotional issue for me. We care. We are all at some level driven to make a difference and build a better way of doing things.

It is fair for survivors to be angry or hurt when we have failed them. It would be rational for Māori to rage against a system which has disproportionately singled them out for punishment and robbed whanau and hapū of their potential.

I want us to bring the grief, the loss, the hurt and pain and combine that with the experience of what does work so we have a chance of truly honouring the memory of those we have failed, by creating a future where we are all safe and free to thrive.  

We are going to have a lot of difficult discussions over the next day and a half. I welcome that. Big changes don’t come out of comfortable conversations. And I know that every single one of my ministerial colleagues welcomes that too, because we’re not here to warm our seats – we’re here to work.

One of the slogans you’ll see around the place is “Join the Conversation.” But I don’t see that as inviting you, the organisations and community groups and people affected by our justice system to join our conversation. You’ve been having that conversation for a long time. And we’re here now to listen. I look forward to hearing a lot of good conversations here today, and working alongside you to develop a plan for a safe and effective justice system. One which makes family and sexual violence a true aberration, not the commonplace experience it is now.

Nō reira tēnā koutou katoa.