• Christine Fletcher
Women's Affairs


Sexual violence.

The words stop you in your tracks don't they?

I saw the effects of sexual violence among women in my constituency last year when a serial rapist was at large in Auckland. I could feel the helplessness and vulnerability experienced by women throughout Auckland during that time. It is a feeling that women should never have to experience.

We all know the adverse effect of sexual violence on women. It robs women of their self-esteem, makes them doubt their own part in it and leaves them feeling vulnerable and alone. These are some of the effects commonly felt by victims. But how much do we know about the causes? And how do we deal with the causes?

Recent Australian research found that almost a third of young Australian men believed it was acceptable to force young women into having sex. One of the reasons given for men holding this belief was that they didn't have enough constructive information on how to conduct relationships with women. While this could be seen as taking blame away from those using the force, it also raises a question - what images of women should society be presenting to men? What's acceptable and what's not? If women are portrayed as being sexually available, it then normalises a complete code of behaviour that demeans them. This is behaviour that society should regard as totally unacceptable. If we don't, we merely perpetuate a problem we can ill afford to tolerate.

Since becoming Minister of Women's Affairs, I have advocated choice for women to support them in their multiple roles. Choice often comes with responsibility and that is to make good choices, to make quality decisions about the images we promote and the messages these send to the community. To encourage healthy and productive relationships, we need to be wary of entertainment and media that present one-dimensional and stereotypical images of women.

I was appalled last week to learn that a strip show had taken place at a coastal property owned but not operated by my family and found it hard to disguise my complete distaste for this type of entertainment. I came under intense scrutiny and found myself having to defend the view that this form of entertainment is not acceptable.

I was asked why I took exception to the show, where was the harm? Well, here's the harm.

More and more, research shows evidence of a connection between media and entertainment images of women and sexual violence against women in the community. Personally, I strongly believe there is a causative link between what we see and come to regard as normal and the way we treat each other. Entertainment that lacks respect for women encourages disrespect for them in other forums.

New Zealand was at the forefront of change when the National Government, with the support of other parties, introduced new censorship laws in 1993. Prior to that time, the guiding philosophy on such issues was a purely moralistic one. The focus is now on the overall effect and likely impact of media material. So, in this context, the question is asked `How much harm is being done by this material?' and this is a question we should continue to ask if we want to foster functioning, productive relationships amongst men and women.

It is not surprising to me that Rape Crisis have identified through their report, "The First Five Years", that 92% of sexual offenders are known to their victims.

Although we become concerned with the perception of attacks on women in public we should, in fact, be more alarmed about offences taking place in the home and workplace.

Of equal concern to me, the Rape Crisis report demonstrates that two thirds of women who come to Rape Crisis for help have not reported the incident to the Police and an attacker is never forced to account for his actions. If we are to get value from the Rape Crisis report and more importantly, if we are to stop sexual violence and harassment, we must bring the subject out into the open and allow women to talk about their experiences. But women must also feel safe about coming forward and not fear the repercussions.

Behaviour that denigrates women can be seen on a continuum ranging from sexual harassment at one end to psychological abuse then to violence and rape at the other end. Sexual harassment can be seen as just as much an invasion of rights as sexual violence is. And Parliament is not unlike many other places where harassment occurs. From 1990 to 1993, I had personal experience of sexual harassment in the Parliamentary workplace but worst for me was gender harassment on an issue where I was most vulnerable. I experienced a male colleague remarking to me every day at work "So whose looking after your children today." As a young MP many miles from my young daughter this constant innuendo shook my confidence.

My experiences pale beside those of rape victims but they have given me some idea of the vulnerability and anger women experience when they are abused. The new MMP environment brought 36 women MP's into Parliament and I hope this will change and improve the culture there. We need more women in many organisations for this same reason, in the navy, the police force, across all sectors. With greater numbers of women, there is more chance that unacceptable behaviour will not go unnoticed and unreported.

I applaud and congratulate Rape Crisis in the work they do and the messages of Rape Awareness Week. We have a common aim - to empower women and lift the quality of their lives. To achieve this, we need to address all areas of inequity - including sexual violence.

Thank you