Building a community response to family violence

New Zealand is a special place where people of all walks of life generally feel welcomed and accepted. But, despite this, our nation stands out for its high level of violence, and sadly this is reflected in both our family violence statistics and the incidence of child abuse and neglect.

The White Ribbon Campaign, which culminates on 25 November each year, needs to be a time of deep reflection about our national record on family violence.

What makes us so violent as a nation is not so clear that we can know exactly what to do to protect future generations. But we know enough to recognise that we cannot escape its personal consequences – which include injury, fear, self-harm, mental health issues, and for some, death.

Estimated at over $8 billion, the economic consequences of family violence are equivalent to the total worth New Zealand’s entire technology sector. We should not have to bear personal and economic costs on this scale.

There are too many children that are unable to escape from the effects of violence, whether they are observers or the victims of abuse or assault. All of us – parents, partners, children and families –need to know that family violence is not acceptable in our society. We must recognise that without support for the victims, and appropriate responses for the perpetrators, we may see our statistics continue to grow.

It might be trite to say we all play a role in eradicating family violence, or in responding to other issues that affect our communities, but we do. The tricky thing is knowing what that role is. Part of it is about our personal response: standing up, speaking out and offering help when someone in our community is at risk. We know that the majority of people affected by family violence are unlikely to find it easy to report violent events, but many confide in friends or relatives. We need a wider commitment from everyone in the community to support people caught in violent situations, as well as those willing to step up and help the community organisations that are on call.

New Zealand already has a fairly robust social system geared up to respond, with counsellors, safe houses, awareness programmes, and a good justice system. And we also need to be able to employ good research to dig deeper into why New Zealand’s level of violence is so high, and to understand how these high rates are transmitted from one generation to the next. For far too long in our history, family violence was seen as a private matter.

Our community response also needs to be one that centres on kindness. That means looking after the vulnerable in our community as well as those we might consider to be “tough” and intimidating – and that includes developing effective responses for those who perpetrate family violence so that they can learn new ways to deal with stress and frustration, or can build relationships that have value for them.

We need to recognise that among the many diverse communities that make up New Zealand, different responses will be needed. The research on families and whānau that Superu is doing gives us a rich source of information on wellbeing indicators, including by ethnic group and region.

All of these things may help bring about change, but we’ve got a long way to go. There is much to be said about how we can build strong communities that reduce the likelihood of family violence, and other social issues, in the first place. Some research shows that communities with strong social cohesion offer a protective effect and can even reduce the risk of violence. We must build communities where we feel like we belong, that support us when things go wrong, and that reduce the likelihood of families being caught in a cycle of abuse.