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Speech: Sharples - Violence, abuse in Communities

Hon Dr Pita R Sharples; Minister of Māori Affairs

Critical and Sensitive Issues Symposium
“Reflecting on the Unspoken Issues-Violence and abuse in our Communities”

‘An Unholy Silence’

Monday 9 November 2009; 9:25am

On 2 May 2007, a dramatic protest rally took place at Parliament as crowds gathered to fight the passage of legislation to remove section 59 from the Crimes Act.

In the midst of spectacular scenes of hostility and noise; there was a group of Anglican Maori leaders, conspicuous by their silence.

Their purpose, according to the Venerable Dr Hone Kaa was simple,

“We strongly support the creation of a society that is completely free from violence, and it’s simple: adults should not be allowed to hit children”.

Their decision to march in silence reflects our practice, as tangata whenua, to call on silence as a means of uniting our people in solemn prayer.

It is the silence of the early dawn, broken only by the deep utterings of our karakia.

It is the silence as we gather on the marae, waiting for the karanga to call us on.

It is the silence of a hui, when the challenge of the korero leads us all to consider another way, a better way.

In those sounds of silence, we call on our tupuna for strength, we are surrounded by the spirits of those who have passed on, and we take comfort from their example.

But today we are here to talk of another silence.

This is the silence in which injustice continues unabated; in which dreams are shattered; potential destroyed.

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Nga Kaupapa Muna – the Unspoken Issues.

I mihi to the organisers of this symposium, Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, for having the courage to bring the korero about violence and abuse in our communities out into the open.

Some of you may remember the lyrics of a Simon and Garfunkel classic: “people talking without speaking; people hearing without listening; people writing songs that voices never share and no one dared; disturb the sound of silence”.

Today is the time to disturb the sound of silence, to speak of the unspeakable.

It is time to rally against the insidious violence that robs us of our greatest treasures; our children.

It is time to shatter the illusions that what goes on behind closed doors stays there; that the sanctuary of the family home escapes scrutiny.

We must not under-estimate the impact of abuse upon our lives, upon our economy, upon all aspects of our community.

Abuse whether it be physical, psychological, sexual, emotional is an attack against the person, and in doing so, an attack against their whakapapa, their whanau, their identity.

And we must see all violence within that definition – including abusive and offensive remarks; derogatory language; intimidating behaviour. Whether it is in a gang war; a newspaper column; or across the airwaves, abuse of any sort brings shame to us all.

If we look at the issue that is perhaps least spoken about, that of sexual abuse, we have an indication of the devastation we seek to address.

A Massey University study conducted by Dr Shirley Jülich found that by the time they reach 16, a quarter of girls and 9% of boys will have experienced sexual abuse. The study concluded that sexual abuse costs New Zealand $2.4 billion a year. Sexual abuse costs adult survivors $900m in lost earnings, extra health bills and a lifetime of unmet potential.

Harmful effects include depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; self-destructive behaviours such as self-harm; substance abuse; eating disorders; aggression and inappropriate sexual behaviour. And of course like all forms of abuse, it can be a driver of future criminal offending.

This Symposium then, is an opportunity for us all to confront the silence that stifles debate; the unspoken issues that destroy the spirit and soul of our communities.

Some have suggested the silence of fear is best understood in the context of whakama.

Ngā Kaitiaki Mauri have suggested that Māori women are often reluctant to report sexual assault as they feel they won’t be believed or that they deserved it because they are Māori.

Mereana Pitman, who will present later at this Symposium, has also argued that the internalising of racist discourses, as part of the impact of colonization, creates feelings of shame that can be so overwhelming that it’s easier to ignore and keep silent than name and confront. And so the abuse continues.

Understanding the concept of whakamā can help us to understand how shame and self-blame can silence survivors, but how this silence also leaves survivors vulnerable to ongoing abuse.

I think what Mereana is reminding us, is that the impacts of our past are inextricably linked to how we respond to the horror of the violence within our communities now.

The artist, Diane Prince, wrote with regard to the loss of Māori land and the attempted elimination of the Māori language that

‘One of the most effective ways to silence a people is to silence its heart, its memories, its intellectual base, to cut out its tongue.’

There is always a context that is never far from the surface when we talk of issues of loss, of pain, of anger and grief.

But within that context, we will also find the promise of strategies of resistance and challenge that we can turn to now, as we muster all of our efforts in this unholy war against violence and abuse in all of our communities.

We must each of us own the leadership that is legendary amongst our whanau, hapu and iwi.

The leadership that we celebrated this week as we thought back to the two thousand mainly women and children of Parihaka, who sat quietly on the marae, united in their actions of passive resistance against the troops who invaded their home.

We think of the leadership of those women of Tairawhiti who called on Apirana Ngata to promote a message that alcohol abuse was not part of the Maori dream.

This is the same leadership that I see rippling through the veins of those who take up the opportunity for our haka, our waiata, our kapa haka performances to send a message to uplift our whanau and to oppose the abuse and violence that seeks to dismantle our communities.

All of us must dig deep into our traditions and challenge the social construct of silence that often surrounds offending within families.

The cone of silence that surrounds family and sexual violence can reinforce offending behaviour by the keeping of ‘secrets’. We can all think of situations where whānau have ‘closed ranks’ to both the community and the authorities.

Addressing attitudes to violence and abuse in our society must however move beyond the polarization of victims and offenders; to the recognition that often offenders carry a history of having been offended against as well.

Rather than spend our time in condemning others, I would suggest our time is better invested in taking steps to support those who are taking the actions to restore our whanau to sites of safety. I am greatly encouraged by my whanaunga, Moana Jackson, who breaks down what we need to do in four clear steps.

1. Stop the Hurt – we need to name it; to be honest about its impacts; and we need to stop it.

2. Explore the reason – this is not about making excuses – but more about understanding the context.

3. Deny the presumption – we must resist the tendency to dismiss behaviour as ‘that’s just him – he’s always like that’. Violence is violence – there is no excuse.

4. Address the causes – working together with whanau to make the difference.

One of the key reasons for us in coming together today, is to show that collective courage to stand up, to take ownership, and to take control of our destiny.

I am so heartened by the collective resolve of some of our marae to make a stand against violence, by the strategies they have developed, to ensure their future is one that they create for themselves.

I am inspired by the stories of marae who are prohibiting abusers from taking a place on the paepae; from speakers who in their whaikorero are taking the moment to challenge each other about the abuse in their midst.

And I think of the way in which Te Arawa leader, Toby Curtis, fronted the media head on and stood up to take responsibility for the failure of his whanau to properly care for one of their mokopuna. It was an important action in so many respects – it revealed the collective shame and horror being felt by that whanau; while at the same time making a commitment that this abuse would stop.

Toby Curtis gives credence to the whakatauaki ‘Kia mau koe ki te kupu a tōu matua’ – reminding us of the importance of role-modeling the example we want the next generations to follow.

So I return to the concept of an unholy silence – is the silence because there are no words to express what we want to say? In our silence are we colluding with the abuser?

Let us use our times of silence for the power of good – to remember what we need to do, to draw on the kaupapa and the tikanga that will lead us back into the light.

As a Government, we believe a greater focus on the wellbeing of the whānau will help to lead us forward, to restore our homes to a place of safety and love; to change that which is ours to change.

I have recently launched a number of initiatives in this area, with the announcement of the implementation of the Kaitoko Whānau and the Oranga Whānau resources into communities.

These initial resources will be part of a wider approach by government to provide more opportunities to do for themselves.

My colleague Tariana Turia is also leading a significant policy programme of work around the drive for Whanau ora.

Ultimately, this is where our greatest hope lies – when our whanau are responsible and accountable for our actions; when we deal honestly and openly with conflict; and when we value, support, respect, care and love each other to experience our full potential.

I wish us all great courage in the journey to take us to that point – a point when our communities are violence free, are self-determining and the promise of all our people is realized.


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