Sexual violence in NZ: 'We can be rid of it'

6:37 pm on 13 March 2018

By Fiona McNamara*

There has long been a culture that has allowed sexual abuse to happen. This year we have seen a dramatic change in the silence around it. People are speaking up, and consequently, people are realising the scale of this problem.

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Photo: janfaukner/123RF

The Ministry of Justice estimates that 186,000 sexual offences are committed against adults in New Zealand each year. That means that this is something that will affect every one of us - whether it happens to us directly or to someone we care about. The Ministry also estimates that only 7 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police.

Many more people share their stories with friends and family, or with support services, but even then, it's just the tip of the iceberg. We are going to hear a lot more stories before we see the numbers drop.

Realising the magnitude of the problem can trigger a range of emotions including making us feel that it's too big a problem to be able to address, but every instance of sexual violence is preventable. Our society has a long way to go before we are rid of this problem, but we can be rid of it.

To end sexual violence, we need a huge shift in our culture. Organisations play an essential role in ending abuse. As a starting point, every organisation needs policies and procedures to tackle this issue.

In my work at the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, I am in contact with many organisations and workplaces and while many have generalised policies and procedures around positive workplace cultures, there are few that tackle sexual abuse, including harassment, head on. Such policies and procedures are often found in a code of conduct, employment or health and safety policies but this issue is different to others faced in a workplace.

There are specific impacts of sexual violence and it doesn't work to lump it in with the rest. For one thing, a lot of people responsible for these policies will have trouble identifying sexual abuse in the first place. Preventing sexual abuse requires more than just policies and procedures. Organisations need regular in-depth training across all levels, firstly to understand the problem and then to know how to prevent it and how to responds when it does happen.

Beyond what can be done at an organisational level, every adult can play a role in sexual violence prevention. At the most basic level, we can call out bad behaviour when we see it, and more challengingly, we can look at our own behaviour and ask what we could be doing less of, or doing better.

The kind of behaviour that was exhibited at the recent Labour Party summer camp is indicative of a wider social problem. People do these things because they think that they can and they have been taught by society to think that they can.

We need to see an overhaul of the culture that breeds disrespect towards women and the culture that turns a blind eye to and even encourages abuse. When incidents do happen, the needs of the survivor are paramount. We must listen to them and respect their choices. We need to support them to find the help they need and want.

It is also essential to make sure that the person who has done the harm receives treatment. We need to ensure that they do not do this again. People who do sexual harm, can and do change their behaviour if they have access to the right services.

There are a number of different pathways that can be followed - reporting to police is one option, but there are also other options, including specialist support services for people with harmful sexual behaviour, and restorative justice processes.

There will be a lot of people out there grappling with the issue of sexual abuse, particularly with such wide spread coverage of recent incidents. If you have been directly affected by sexual abuse or if it has impacted you indirectly - including if you are worried about a friend or your children, you can contact a support service. There is a national phone line that redirects to specialist sexual violence support services throughout the country - the number is 0800 88 33 00.

Fiona McNamara is General Manger at Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, a service that provides consultancy services, education and training aimed at ending sexual abuse.

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