Despite winning an outright majority in last month’s New Zealand election, the Labor Party has offered the Greens a “cooperation agreement” that will include some shared policy platforms. The agreement will also provide the Greens with two ministerial portfolios, although these two ministers will sit outside the cabinet. One of these portfolios — to be held by the Greens’ co-leader Marama Davidson — will be the newly formed Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence. The creation of this portfolio is an indication that the New Zealand government is serious about tackling what is humanity’s most persistent and detrimental problem.
New Zealand has some of the highest rates of family and sexual violence in the developed world. Almost half of all homicides and other violent crimes in the country are family related. It is also estimated that one in four New Zealand women experience sexual or other forms of violence in their lifetime, with many facing this abuse before the age of 16. For many women and girls their lives are lived in a permanent state of insecurity, where even their own homes cannot be considered safe environments.
Last year the government did make some changes to the country’s laws around family violence to include a recognition of coercive control as a form of abuse. This is something that women’s support groups had been advocating for a while, recognizing it as a form of intimate terrorism, with a strong correlation to more physical forms of violence. This year’s budget also included added support services for victims of family and sexual violence. This was in response to the significant spike in domestic violence the country has experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, consistent with trends worldwide.
One pressing concern for the new minister will be working with the Ministry of Justice to reform the family court. New Zealand’s family court — like family courts throughout the West — has experienced an ideological revolution over the past three decades that has made it incredibly difficult for mothers to protect their children from dangerous fathers. These courts have been overrun by an insidious concept called “parental alienation” that was concocted to give the lawyers of abusive men an argument to discredit women and distract judges from their client’s behavior. This tactic of misdirection has been highly successful, with family court judges proving themselves easily susceptible to its underlying medieval assumption that women are deceitful liars by nature.
The concept has been described as a “gendered trap” due to the way it preys on the fears of mothers, turning their maternal instincts into a detriment to their case; as the more a mother tries to protect her children from violence the more her actions are instead interpreted as “alienating” the children from the father. The result of this line of argument is often the loss of custody for mothers, with children instead being placed in the custody of abusive fathers; farcical outcomes that demonstrate a clear backsliding in the treatment of women before the law, as well as a careless disregard for the welfare of children.
In January 2020 the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law dedicated an entire issue to “parental alienation” and how it was bastardizing custody proceedings in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. The New Zealand authors asserted that the continued use of the concept was “undermining children’s right to be protected from violence, a right enshrined in both international convention and New Zealand law.”
This institutional suspicion of women instead continues to protect violent men from facing any consequences for their behavior, with these men also often taking their legal victories as endorsements of their self-prescribed right to violence, compounding the violence women and children face. Whether it is through the decisions of the family court, or in cases of battery or sexual assault — which are also frequently ignored by police and the courts — there seems to be an institutional belief that either men actually do have a certain right to violence, or that expecting men to be non-violent is asking something of them that is beyond their capabilities. Countering these deeply ingrained perspectives is something that governments cannot do alone, instead requiring a whole of society acknowledgement and effort.
Despite all the positive advances New Zealand has been able to achieve in overall human well-being, the prevalence of male violence remains a persistent scourge on its society. It is a problem that is estimated to cost the country up to $4.6 billion annually, yet more than this it costs women and children their fundamental right to secure and healthy living conditions. This is something that governments and justice systems should deem intolerable, but instead have consistently demonstrated that male violence is something that women and children simply need to carry for their societies.
New Zealand establishing a ministerial portfolio that is specifically designed to address the problem of family and sexual violence is a genuine positive step toward giving these issues the attention that they so clearly deserve. Yet, whatever advances the state may make in responding to domestic and sexual violence, it is men themselves who will be required to seriously self-assess and find ways to evolve their masculinity away from seeking power and dignity through acts of violence.