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Last Updated: Monday, 29 January 2007, 13:09 GMT
New Zealand faces its dark secret
By Heather Sharp
in Hamilton, New Zealand

Sam Dog
Sam Dog says domestic abuse needs addressing
Sam Dog, a 47-year-old gang member with a history of beating up his girlfriends, sees in himself a trait that New Zealand is far from proud of.

Domestic violence is often described as the country's "dark secret".

But a series of grisly child murders and statistics described by the Social Development and Employment Minister David Benson-Pope as "appalling" have brought the issue into the spotlight.

Sam Dog - his gang name is the only one he would give - says the moment of recognition came when he saw the 1994 film Once Were Warriors, which portrayed an abusive family from New Zealand's indigenous Maori population.

"I saw what my father did to my mother, and what I'd done to my partners over the years," the father of eight said.

While domestic violence afflicts all ethnic groups, the uncomfortable truth remains that the Maori population is over-represented in the statistics.

We're in many ways still a settler society, and the view of the male as macho and physically strong is very strong
Brian Gardner

Fifty percent of those sentenced for the offence of "male assaults female" in the year 2004-2005 were Maori, although Maori make up only about 15% of the country's population.

And in the most recent national survey of victims of crime, 42% of Maori women said a partner had abused them physically, compared to only 20% of white women.

Social welfare professionals are quick to point out that a long history of European colonisation has left disproportionate numbers of Maori at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, despite continued efforts to redress the balance.

YanaLeah Hemi, who is Maori and survived domestic abuse herself, has worked for 12 years, mainly with Maori, at the Hamilton Abuse Intervention Project, one of many groups running programmes aiming to help violent men change their ways.

"My opinion is that abuse that is perpetuated by Maori also stems back to colonisation, and to how far we've moved as a people from where we once were," she said.

Brian Gardner, manager of National Network of Stopping Violence Services, said men in colonised cultures could "have even less power in the world and end up taking it out on the people they are closest to".

Violent cycle

But Ms Hemi stressed that while colonisation may help explain Maori abuse, it does not excuse it.

Hamilton Abuse Intervention Project offices
National projects are trying to get violent men to change their ways

Karam Karaitiana, 26, bursting with optimism after learning to control the anger that led him to assault his wife last year, has little interest in looking back.

"People are too worried about the past - about people taking our land. I'm more worried about my future," he said.

Often, according to Ms Hemi, the men she has worked with "have known nothing but violence".

Sam Dog, for example, grew up milking cows from the age of six and watching his father hit his mother.

"I've been in and out of jail all my life," he said.

He was released two months ago after a sentence for beating up his partner "a lot of times".

For 30 years he has been a member of the Mongrel Mob, a mainly Maori gang known for drug dealing and other organised crime. Two of his sons are now members.

"Being a gangster, all you pretty much had to worry about was yourself. So you keep living that way, even when you get a partner, because you don't know how to live any other life," he said.

Need to talk

Mr Gardner is also convinced New Zealand must challenge prevailing views of masculinity - which he said were "strikingly similar" across the country's ethnic groups.

"We're in many ways still a settler society, and the view of the male as macho and physically strong is very strong. You don't talk about your emotion," he said.

Unfortunately, the person closest to you ends up bearing the brunt
Dean

"Our national sport is about physical domination and not showing pain - which is great if you're a settler cutting down bush and you break your leg miles from help, but it's a bit outdated now."

Dean, a white, 40-year-old retail manager from Wellington, sought help after finding the pressures of children, an ex-wife and a new marriage too much.

"Unfortunately, the person closest to you ends up bearing the brunt," he said.

Although he never injured his second wife, "there was lots of yelling, barging through doors, hitting walls, pushing her out of my way," he said.

He described his upbringing as "really good", but said he was "never really taught how to talk about things" and still finds communicating on difficult issues hard.

The perception that New Zealand has one of the worst rates of domestic violence in the developed world is now common.

But violence within families is by nature hard to quantify, and Mike Doolan, former Chief Social Worker and currently a researcher at Canterbury University, said the claim is "impossible to prove".

New Zealand falls into a group of developed countries with "moderate to moderately-high" child homicide rates, he said.

But international systems for recording other types of abuse vary, comparisons are unreliable and New Zealand may simply be better at monitoring the problem than other nations.

What is clear, however, is that although the battle is far from over, the country has - like Sam Dog - acknowledged it has a problem.

"That's the only way to address it, and then you start searching for the tools to take care of it," the veteran gangster said.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: New Zealand
11 Sep 04 |  Country profiles

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