This article contains discussion of domestic violence. If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can contact Women’s Refuge on 0800 733 843, the Family Violence Information line on 0800 456 450 or Shine on 0508 744 633. If in immediate danger, call the New Zealand Police on 111.
As lockdown reached communities worldwide, emotional and physical isolation placed the world in a petri dish for an unprecedented social experiment.
A guerrilla activist poster from Greece was pasted on the streets with the words, “there is a virus of violence in the home”. Indeed, United Nations Women released a statement in April 2020 warning of a ‘shadow pandemic’, amidst reports of domestic violence increasing under community lockdown. Many causal factors are to do with this; family stress, gendered labour in the family home, less chances of confidential reporting and survivors being less likely to go to neighbours for support.
There is no doubt that domestic violence and abuse is a persistent issue in young people and students in New Zealand. Our own statistics show that 14% of young people have reported experiences of domestic violence in the last 12 months, and 20% of young women report being touched non-consensually or experiencing sexual abuse.
This is my story of how I left my situation of family violence as a young student. My experience had transported me to a New Zealand of the 1970s, a place of social change but a place of stubbornly held misconceptions. But we are not living in the 1970s. With New Zealand having the highest rate of domestic violence in the OECD, the lack of an adaptive system means that thousands feel as though they could never leave.
Victimhood of domestic violence is predominantly shown in the media as a woman abused by a male partner. However, migrant children estranged from their families, like me, are often abused by a parental figure who may be their mother. The lived experience of minorities is often left out of what it means to recognise abuse and overcome it.
Communities have a responsibility to detect and report abuse. But on previous attempts to report my situation, the main response was inability to acknowledge an alternate culture. “You’re an adult. They can’t do that to you”. But they did. And what does that mean for me, in New Zealand where most resources focus on partner abuse? As New Zealand becomes more multicultural, we have to prepare for a generation of children who will be more liberal with their values in contrast with a most hierarchical, familial piety system as in some Asian, Middle Eastern and African cultures.
Breaking free from culture and family can be an incredibly difficult process. A more nuanced view of family violence was discussed by YouTube user, Peaked Interest in his analysis of ‘I, Tonya’, where he states that parental abusers are often a primary source of encouragement and identity for their children. In spite of great resentment around the Tiger Parenting I experienced, I feel as though this was a contributor to me finding my work ethic, so a part of me felt like I owed something to my family and had to stay. These cultural factors add to emotional entrapment. Thus, as more migrant youth realise their situation, support needs to focus on supporting their identity as being between two worlds and easing any guilt they may face.
When people find out I am a survivor of abuse, the most common reaction has been, “Wow! How’d they beat you?”. These comments focus on physical abuse, which can exclude the acknowledgement of other forms of abuse. Andrea Kelly, ex-wife of disgraced singer R. Kelly, stated in an October 2018 interview that physical violence is often the aftermath of repeated emotional and verbal abuse. Victims shouldn’t have to wait to be beaten to know that it is abuse. The only reason I started suspecting emotional, financial and verbal abuse as abuse was after being a student of family law. Looking back, there were a number of failed opportunities to intervene. Former friends and school councellors were aware of severe episodes of verbal abuse, but my incidents were never referred as I had not been hit and because past physical violence was ‘corporal punishment’ and rationalised as normal. It does not take long to find New Zealanders nostalgic for how ‘tough love’ corrects behaviour; this diminished my inner voice when I knew that my home environment was abnormal. It is only in my 20s where I am able to validate myself and say that abuse of any kind teaches fear. It primes children to accept violence to correct their behaviour, which continues into adulthood with their family or in relationships. Detection and discussion of abuse should extend to non-physical forms and should be accessible in environments other than university.
When I think about why it took me so long to leave, my mind goes to a conversation I overheard in a criminal law class. The situation was of a suicidal mother who was a victim of abuse. Upon leaving the class, a classmate said, “the mother was clearly overreacting, she should have just left”. ‘Just leaving’ is often the most dangerous part of a survivor’s life. To ‘just leave’ involves a plan of collecting belongings, financial stability, financial independence and a need to survive. Even just surviving requires an independent bank account and compassionate public, both of which I did not have at the time.
Being able to leave and survive the aftermath of abuse requires the assurance of the Real World. We look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; once physical survival is achieved, emotional needs such as love, self esteem and self-actualisation need to be met. These cannot always be taught in isolation.
In order for mutual aid amongst communities to work, and for New Zealand to address domestic violence seriously, several things need to happen. Cultural clashes which can result in violence between migrant parents and their more assimilated children need to be addressed. All forms of abuse should be recognised. Communities, employers and universities must understand that leaving domestic violence is one of the most dangerous and mentally difficult times in a survivor’s life.
Dismissive attitudes, lack of understandings of the nuances of abuse and casual rationalising of other forms of abuse are all ways to invalidate survivors. As long as these continue, New Zealand does not address the needs of a growing list of survivors, creating the perfect conditions for the virus of family violence.