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Greater empathy for wāhine Māori needed

Greater empathy for wāhine Māori needed to reduce family violence in New Zealand


Despite living with partners who used violence, Māori women did not feel vulnerable until they had to ask for help. Negative interactions with agencies and services (including unhelpful staff, judgemental and racist attitudes, and denied entitlements) left wāhine feeling unsafe, defensive, disregarded and discouraged.

Fear of having their children removed also prevented Māori women from seeking help. All participants had personal experience of having tamariki taken into state care, or knew other wāhine who did, and had been disempowered and silenced through the process.

Professor Denise Wilson at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) says, Māori women should never need to fear asking for help – they should have access to a system that enables them to get the support they need.

“It is not just their partners’ use of violence that renders them unsafe, it is the agencies and services and people working within them, it is the negative attitudes held at a societal level about wāhine Māori, which reinforce the notion that they are the authors of their own fate – that they choose to live with a violent partner and, as a consequence, neglect the wellbeing and safety of their tamariki,” says Professor Wilson.

“We found that wāhine continue to return to relationships with a partner who uses violence because the options available to them are few or none. They needed to ensure that the provisions and necessities of life were available to their tamariki. Leaving an unsafe relationship without money or secure housing would only compromise the safety of their tamariki with unknown people in unfamiliar environments.”

The report, E Tū Wāhine, E Tū Whānau: Wāhine Māori keeping safe in unsafe relationships, suggests that if agencies and services were more compassionate in their dealings with wāhine, it could significantly reduce Aotearoa’s appalling rate of family violence.

In New Zealand, Māori women bear the greatest burden of family violence as victims of assault and homicide. While partner violence is estimated to affect one in three women, the lifetime prevalence for wāhine could be as high as 80 percent.

Professor Wilson, Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT, is the lead author of the report and underlying study into the processes and strategies that Māori women use to keep safe within unsafe partner relationships.

Understanding what wāhine do is crucial to working in partnership with them and building upon what they already know. Protecting their tamariki was the priority. By reading situations and knowing the triggers of their partners’ use of violence, they were able to prevent or minimise the violence and its effects.

The 28 wāhine Māori who participated in the study were diverse in their backgrounds and experiences – yet all had experienced psychological violence, and almost all had experienced physical violence. Most had also suffered extensive trauma to their heads, which raised concerns about the cumulative impact on their ability to function physically and cognitively.

“We need to reframe the way that we think about Māori women in unsafe relationships. They are not passive recipients of violence – they are intelligent and resourceful wāhine, who are highly motivated to keep their tamariki safe,” says Professor Wilson.

The report highlights the notion of ‘culture as cure’. It also reinforces the need for relevant and meaningful healing pathways, which sit outside conventional health and social services.

Both wāhine and tāne claimed that counselling was not effective for addressing the violence and trauma they were living with. Instead, they wanted to talk to people who ‘know’ – who have lived their lives and come out the other side.

Strengthening their cultural identity as Māori was a crucial component in their healing – it was also a powerful point of change for both wāhine and tāne to live without violence.

“Culture has an important role to play in preventing violence from occurring within our whānau, primarily because it promotes mana wāhine, mana tāne and mana tamariki,” says Professor Wilson.

E Tū Wāhine, E Tū Whānau: Wāhine Māori keeping safe in unsafe relationships

This report provides an alternative view of Māori women and family violence. It counters the often negative views and perceptions of indigenous women that problematises and pathologizes them, while overlooking their strengths.

It affirms the need for new thinking and strategies that better support Māori women living with violence. Government agencies and services must explore alternative ways of working with whānau and recognise the role they play in entrapping wāhine and their tamariki in unsafe relationships.

E Tū Wāhine, E Tū Whānau was developed with support from the Marsden Fund administered by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.


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