Denise Wilson (Ngāti Tahinga), is Professor of Māori Health at AUT. (Photo by Daniel Ido)

The vilification of ‘the Māori mother’ in Aotearoa: family violence and victim-blaming

New Zealand’s shameful rates of family violence place us at the bottom of the heap when it comes to intimate partner violence and child abuse in the OECD. Māori are among the greatest offenders and victims alike. Simon Day spoke to Denise Wilson about the history of family violence in this country and her solution to the problem.

In New Zealand 194 people were killed as a result of family violence in the seven years from 2009 to 2015, according to the Family Violence Death Review Committee. Māori were overrepresented among both the offenders and deceased.

Yet family violence was not part of traditional, pre-colonial Māori communities. Women and children were deeply valued as guardians of future whakapapa. The whānau and hapū – including cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents – played an active nurturing role in the lives of tamariki (the young). But, when colonisation broke down the communal structures of Māori family life, something changed.

“Victorian social norms were introduced, whereby men had ownership over women and children. There was a push to make Māori more like European settlers. Those protective factors embedded in traditional cultural values and cultural identity were gradually destroyed,” says Denise Wilson (Ngāti Tahinga), Professor of Māori Health at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

These new rules of behaviour permitted family violence to take seed in silence and social isolation. It created a culture where victims are blamed for the violence they suffer and mothers are held culpable for the effects it had on their children.

“With ‘the Māori mother’, the attention is on what they have or haven’t done, without any recognition of the violence they live with. They are vilified and found guilty before natural justice is able to take its course,” she says.

Growing up in the 70s, raised by a single mother with no money, Wilson knew what it was like to be marginalised. After becoming a nurse, she saw the injustices that Māori encountered in the health system. And, seeing family violence up-close motivated her to investigate the experiences of Māori in healthcare, namely Māori women who are victims of violence.

Wilson is director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT South Campus. She is also chair of the Family Violence Prevention Investment Advisory Board and deputy chair of the Family Violence Death Review Committee.

Her solution for New Zealand’s ‘disgraceful problem’ starts at the top and at the same time sits at the heart of society. She calls for the government to take control of the way family violence is treated, with a single far-reaching entity that oversees the response and ensures that all agencies and services are integrated. And, an end to the permissive culture that allows family violence to happen.

* In this conversation, Wilson focused on men’s violence against women and children, because they are more likely to be harmed or killed as a result.

“To counteract the normalisation of violence, we need to encourage people to care for women and children, and engage with them in positive ways.” (Photo by Daniel Ido)

When did you first witness family violence?

My first exposure to family violence was probably my own experience.

Are you willing to talk about it? Was it your parents’ relationship or your own?

I don’t recall any physical violence growing up, but I certainly remember my mother being emotionally and psychologically abused. Then, I fell into an abusive relationship. Violence was very much normalised and accepted. I remember being badly beaten up and my father saying: ‘What the hell did you do to deserve that?’

It took me a long time to get out of that relationship. It’s not easy to walk out the door – you can’t, for a whole host of reasons. My experiences sensitised me to the issue of family violence and the difficulties that women face. I have been on the receiving end of victim-blaming and mother-blaming. I have been on the receiving end of health services where I didn’t get the help I needed. I was traumatised and not in a position to advocate for myself.

All of this contributed to who I am today and the work that I do.

Do you remember the first time you witnessed the ‘alternative experiences’ of healthcare encountered by Māori?

I was working in intensive care and coronary care when I became aware of how some of my colleagues treated Māori patients and whānau members. They were controlling and said things like: ‘you’re not allowed in if you’re not a family member’, ‘you’re noisy and disruptive’, ‘why are there so many of you?’ Things could get quite confrontational, but I practiced in a very different way.

For three years, I worked on night duty. I used to speak with whānau and explain to them: ‘Because we are a small unit, you can only have two people here at a time. But how you organise that is up to you.’ So, they would quietly come and go.

Colleagues kept saying to me: ‘You don’t need to practice like this’. I would thank them for their recommendations, but let them know that I preferred to practice the way I wanted to practice – the way that I thought people deserved to be treated.

Why is New Zealand so badly affected by family violence?

For generations, we’ve had this societal acceptance of family violence. If you look at Māori, it’s important to remember that violence was not a feature of the traditional whānau or hapū. Women were important members of Māori society as the bearers of future generations. Men were equally important in protecting and caring for women and children.

In terms of whakapapa (genealogies), having healthy women and children was essential. Māori society was structured around values like whānaungatanga (a sense of family and belonging), manaakitanga (respect and care for one another) and aroha (love and compassion).

There was a collective obligation that featured strongly in traditional Māori culture. Settlers in New Zealand documented that Māori looked after whānau – they didn’t beat their wives or children.

Colonisation and the legislation that came with it began to break down the foundations of whānau and hapū. Things like urbanisation, where Māori were removed from their tūrangawaewae (place of residence or belonging) and relocated to urban areas as part of a pepper-potting strategy, eroded their support structures.

Victorian social norms were introduced, whereby men had ownership of women and children. There was a push to make Māori more like European settlers, so those protective factors embedded in traditional cultural values and cultural identity were gradually destroyed. It was a way of controlling Māori – a form of state control.

How has this cultural shift contributed to family violence?

All of these things combined have led us to the current situation. The care of whānau, which once occurred in a very public, communal space, moved behind closed doors. This became the private domain of men, where women and children were treated as chattels. It reinforced the attitude that ‘what goes on behind closed doors, stays behind closed doors’. Hence, the reticence among many people to intervene in domestic disputes.

To counteract the normalisation of violence, we need to encourage people to care for women and children, and engage with them in positive ways.

How significant is poverty in relation to disproportionate rates of family violence among Māori?

The significance is huge. The fifth data report from the Family Violence Death Review Committee shows that most violence within whānau occurs among those living in the most deprived areas of the country, where Māori are overrepresented.

I know a woman with four children who came out of a violent relationship with nothing – no money, no car, no home. It was weeks before she received a benefit. And, it was weeks after that before she could get a meeting at Housing New Zealand, only to be told by the person who should have been helping her: ‘It was your choice to leave’.

We know from our work on the Family Violence Death Review Committee that Māori seeking support are often met with unhelpful responses and racism.

Why is victim-blaming so dangerous?

People have to understand that when victims of violence ask for help, they have already exhausted any resources or strategies for keeping themselves and their children safe. When they ask for help, their lives are at risk. Women are most at risk of homicide when they are leaving an abusive partner or just after they leave. Separation doesn’t make you safe.

When people put their hand up for help, they need support – not unhelpful responses where they are blamed for the violence inflicted on them.

Family violence is not just ‘a domestic’ – people are seriously harmed or die as a result. This is a potentially lethal problem. Women and children are most likely to be the victims, and that harm is cumulative – we now know that it causes a lifetime of health problems.

We need to rethink the way we view and respond to family violence, and those affected. Generally, it’s a control issue, where one person is trying to control another. This involves a range of strategies designed to manipulate and entrap. Threats are made against women, their children and those closest to them, which creates a situation where the victim finds it difficult to ask for help.

I recently interviewed a woman who said: ‘They just don’t get it. They tell you to leave, but you can’t. If I leave, I’ve got no money. If I leave, I’ve got no house. If I leave, my children will be worse off. But, if I stay, they have a house and a bed, and they’ll be safe and warm’.

Is it an example of victim-blaming to ask the question: ‘Why don’t you just leave?’

Yes. It’s also an example of mother-blaming. The focus is on women and the perception that it’s their responsibility to keep themselves safe, protect their children and solve the problem of violence in their lives. What that does is shift the attention away from the person who is doing the violence and they are not held to account. More importantly, they are not getting any help to stop their violence. That’s what we need to focus on – helping men to stop using violence.

How has mother-blaming led to the vilification of Māori women?

The negative media portrayal of Māori focuses on women. With ‘the Māori mother’, the attention is on what they have or haven’t done, without any recognition of the violence they live with. They are vilified and found guilty before natural justice is able to take its course. Victim-blaming unfairly shifts the gaze onto Māori women.

The current narrative is unhelpful. And it’s particularly unhelpful for Māori women and children. It tells us that it’s a woman’s responsibility to protect her children – she should just leave and that would fix the problem or she shouldn’t have those children.

We don’t even think about the reality for women affected by family violence. One of the coercive control strategies that I’ve seen is men sabotaging contraceptives. We need to question what actually goes on beneath the surface.

The Family Violence Death Review Committee reports that men are more likely to kill than women, but when women do kill, they do it in a different way. Men have a tendency to overkill. Whereas, women will stab their partner once or twice, because they are the primary victims in the relationship. We can’t look at family violence using a victim-perpetrator analysis. We must ascertain who the primary victim is in the relationship.  

Denise Wilson (Ngāti Tahinga), is Professor of Māori Health at AUT. (Photo by Daniel Ido)

How do we change the narrative? Have we started to make that journey in New Zealand?

We need to mobilise people in communities.

We had a couple living next door and he used to beat up his partner. When things got heated, my husband would go over and calm him down, and send the woman and baby over to our place. She got help and eventually made the decision to leave.

That’s an example of someone having the courage to knock on the door and say: ‘This has to stop’. Sometimes it’s easier and safer to pick-up the phone and call the police. But, we need to care about what happens in our neighbourhoods.

What is the problem with the current response?

At the moment, our agencies and services operate in silos. We can’t expect to have well-resourced, functioning organisations in the community if government agencies aren’t working together. That said, the government is doing a lot of work to improve the system around family violence.

What does a functional system look like?

Ideally, we would have a single entity to ensure the whole system is integrated.  We currently have a lot of different players who aren’t talking or sharing information, which is a recipe for disaster. Family violence costs this country billions.

PTSD occurs in children exposed to violence. Is there any permanent effect?

Family violence has far reaching effects, particularly on children – even if they are not the direct victims of abuse. There are psychological effects, like depression, anxiety, panic attacks and behavioural issues. There are also physical effects. Research shows that exposure to violence changes the pathways in the brain and that these changes are transmitted to the next generation.

How can we make a change? Where does the responsibility lie?

The responsibility lies with all of us. We need to change the way that the person on the street talks about family violence. We need more men to call out their mates if they say things that are questionable. Recently, there was a story about rugby fans making lewd comments to young girls a hyper-sexualised way that was totally inappropriate. Why didn’t any of their mates say: ‘Hang on a minute, this is not right’. Change is as simple as that.

What I found alarming were the comments that said: ‘What are girls that age doing around rugby, men and drinking?’ Again, this is victim-blaming.

In a silent way, they’re almost saying that what happened was okay. But aren’t rugby test matches something that families can enjoy? And let’s not forget that these young women were invited by the organisers to perform.

Family violence exists because of shame, secrecy and silence. Often, victims don’t speak out because of the shame that’s associated or the fear that they will be blamed.

Changing people’s attitudes takes time. But, New Zealand is one of the worst countries in the world for family violence. We have shocking child abuse and child death statistics, as well as shocking violence against women.

We all have to do something, no matter how small that something is.


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