Paora Moyle supporting Ngā Mōrehu wāhine on filming day with The Hui.

Ngā Wāhine Mōrehu: putting women back in the state abuse conversation

The forthcoming inquiry into state care abuse must remember that women were victims, too, writes Paora Moyle, herself a former ward of the state. 

Last week on The Spinoff, Aaron Smale shared personal stories of state abuse of indigenous people in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and asked what we can learn as New Zealand prepares to launch an inquiry. Read the series here and Elizabeth Stanley’s recommendations for an independent inquiry here


I spent 14 years in state care – you can read my story here. I also have 27 years of social work experience behind me. I speak out a lot on the gaps within New Zealand child protection, particularly in relation to mokopuna Māori over-representation.

This kōrero is for Ngā Wāhine Mōrehu and also for those who have passed on from this life with no acknowledgment of the abuse they endured. It is also for the many of our disabled whānau who are often left out of the conversation.

When I read a headline such as ‘Abused Males Want a Royal Commission’ and I see the media coverage on the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Conference recently held in Christchurch, I wonder if other wāhine survivors like me feel that their specific experiences are marginalised. I want to be clear: female survivors want an independent inquiry just as much as male survivors do. As many boys as girls were sexually abused – the New Zealand Confidential Listening and Assistance Service (CLAS) report found about 57% of the men had been sexually abused and 57% of the women.

Apart from the recent Ngā Wāhine Mōrehu piece on The Hui, female state care survivors (or care leavers) have been almost entirely excluded from the inquiry conversation. It is vital that women as a survivor group are not left out of the setting up of an inquiry. Why? Māori and women are less likely to speak out about their abuse due to the double whammy of racism and misogyny/sexism. Yet we know that one in four New Zealand girls is sexually abused before the age of 15. An international survey found that New Zealand had highest rate of any country examined and the results showed, for the first time, that Māori girls suffer twice as much sexual abuse as non-Māori girls.

Paora Moyle at the presentation of a petition demanding an independent inquiry into abuse of those in state care, July 2017.

There are some specific abuses endured by female survivors of state care abuse, including forced internal inspections for venereal diseases and forced contraception. I was forced to take contraception for which there was no need because I was not sexually active at the time and later I was only interested in girls. I remember conversations about sterilising two whāngai disabled sisters based on an assumption that menstruation would be traumatic for them. If you think the idea abhorrent but dated, know that just last year we had sterilisation being tabled by Anne Tolley as a method of birth control.

Sonya Cooper of Cooper Legal, who has been legal support for survivors for more than 20 years, revealed: “[There] are a number of documents we were provided with by media, regarding the VD checks undertaken at the Girls’ Homes… For the first time, MSD accepted that a client was exposed to abuse by way of medical examinations performed by a doctor which were conducted in a manner which was outside the guidelines of the time. MSD stated that while it did not accept responsibility for the actions of the doctor, it accepted that the client was exposed to this abuse while in its care. Prior to this, MSD had failed to accept that such examinations were abuse, or failed to answer this allegation when presented with it.”

These practices were horrific and very traumatising for girls and young women. They have impacted generationally upon our whānau, from which we have not healed.

There are also issues from the past that directly correlate with what Māori women and whānau are currently experiencing in the systems that underpin our society. In my PhD research, Māori women speak of their experience of sexism, structural racism and cultural ignorance in statutory social work and in the Family Court. This is directly linked to the increased number of tamariki Māori aged 0 to 5 being uplifted by the state and fast tracked to permanency outside of their whakapapa.

It is vitally important that we have survivor groups like the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Conference out front informing the public about what historical state abuse is and who it impacts. We also need to inform people about all abuse types being harmful to children, and that the inquiry’s terms of reference must include them – such my brother who experienced electro-shock treatment at Cherry Farm as an eight-year-old, or those who were locked up for 23 hour stretches in solitary confinement. Or the perpetual emotional and cultural abuse we suffered, as evidenced in the 1978 ACORD (Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination) inquiry into the “cruel and inhumane treatment… violence and assaults of children and sexual violation of girls and young women.”

According to the ACORD inquiry, “Pākeha girls were treated better than Māori girls who were seen as stereotypically bad, and troublemakers… put down and treated with contempt”. We were often referred to as ‘inbred’.

It’s important for an inquiry to acknowledge that abuse of children also happened in religious-based care, where I was placed after I was made a state ward. From the outside these places looked like any ordinary homely setting but my abuse began within a week of arrival. The vetting of caregivers was not a priority because the assumption was that they were ‘good’ Christian folk. Many were respected community leaders. As a consequence, we were very vulnerable to predatory adults.

We now know that 60% of all victims of historic sexual abuse were abused while in religious-based care.

Any inquiry terms of reference need to include religious care, and not just the bigger institutions we hear so much about, or it risks excluding more than half of all victims.

An inquiry must be independent of the Ministry of Social Development or Ministry for Children. It must be able to compel witnesses and access unredacted documents; must not have a cut-off date; must deal with compensation/restitution and structural change to our systems. It must include all institutions and children’s homes of any description (either run by churches, charities or the state) and all forms of abuse, not just sexual – a big mistake made by the Australian Royal Commission, which excluded many thousands of survivors. I personally think that only a Royal Commission of Inquiry will do, because then it is able to hold ministries to account for their multiple and continued failings.

If we have to have the Minister for Children leading it then, like the Māori Women’s Welfare League, I urge them to consult widely. Ensure that provision is made for lived-experience to be at the change table. It must include a variety of lenses, especially when considering previous reviews and recommendations such as Puao Te Ata Tu. Consultation must include survivors, survivor groups and organisations with a history of involvement in or supporting those in state care.

I am just one voice, a wāhine toa survivor… Wāhine Mōrehu. I claim the right to be at the change table, to be valued as an ‘expert’ on this kaupapa by virtue of lived experience. I am one person but I speak powerfully on behalf of hundreds of voices who have been rendered silent. We are here, not to be further victimised or ‘saved’ but to be the living testimony and centralised, collective voice of change.

For those supportive of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, here is a survey intended to help shape the inquiry terms of reference or email your views to the Human Rights Commission info@hrc.co.nz with the subject line: Independent Inquiry into State Abuse.

Featured image: Paora Moyle supporting Ngā Mōrehu wāhine on filming day with The Hui.

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