Family violence: When an offender becomes a helper

New Zealand has the worst rate of family and intimate-partner violence in the world. Eighty per cent of incidents go unreported — so what we know of family violence in our community is barely the tip of the iceberg. Today is part five of We’re Better Than This, a week-long series on family violence. Our aim is to raise awareness, to educate, to give an insight into the victims and perpetrators. We want to encourage victims to have the strength to speak out, and abusers the courage to change their behaviour.
Shine's stopping violence programme works with people from all walks of life. Photo / iStock
Shine's stopping violence programme works with people from all walks of life. Photo / iStock

For the past 10 years Aaron Steedman has co-ordinated Shine's stopping violence programme for men and works with people from all walks of life.

He knows first hand about perpetrators because he was one. While arguing with his partner many years ago, he strangled her. Now he is committed to helping other men change their behaviour.

"I got into this work because I assaulted my partner. In the midst of an argument I strangled her," he said. "That was the most serious event that ever happened when I was angry. Prior to that there was no terror. She wasn't scared of me. But after that she was."

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Mr Steedman was working in hospitality at the time and said he was drinking a lot and using drugs.

"I lost my girlfriend. I lost my business. I lost a lot of things ... When my life fell apart I voluntarily entered a mens' programme."

He does not excuse what he did, there is no excuse. But he is determined to use his offending to stop others.

He spoke to the Herald about the programme he runs. It spans 18 weeks and at any given meeting there are new men mixing with those part-way through, and others about to graduate.

Participants come from every background imaginable.

"Five years ago less than 10 per cent of our men were here voluntarily. Now it's 30 per cent," he said. The rest are there as a result of a court order following family violence proceedings.

"Most of the men that come here as volunteers have not actually become physically violent. They are reaching out way earlier in their relationships, well before it becomes physical."

Aaron Steedman is committed to helping other men change their behaviour. Photo / Supplied
Aaron Steedman is committed to helping other men change their behaviour. Photo / Supplied

Mr Steedman said Kiwis had a lot to learn about family violence.

"Most people when they think of intimate partner violence think of Jake the Muss from [the movie] Once Were Warriors. Men come in here and say, 'I'm not a violent man'. But compared to who? Compared to Jake the Muss you're not a violent man, but compared to Buddha you really are."

He sees men with money, men with none and men who he knows will go off after the programme and carry on being violent.

But at meetings they are all the same -- men who need help.

"It's a really safe environment, an educational environment."

The men all sit around and are invited to share their experiences.

"You don't have to go into great detail ... Get settled into the group, get used to talking and thinking about this stuff ... it takes a deep courage and vulnerability to open up, to build that trust.

"Usually by week eight, nine or 10 most guys start to report significant changes. People are noticing they are doing things differently, they are not as aggro, they are not as intense."

By 18 weeks most men had a pretty good understanding of why they got angry and what triggered their violent or abusive behaviour. "They can see the bigger picture."

Mr Steedman believed a much stronger focus on stopping non-physical abuse was needed.

"If you can stop the verbal and emotional abuse, then you will stop the physical. There needs to be a lot more work around respectful relationships," he said.

"About 20 per cent [don't change] ... But the other 80 per cent stop using physical violence and about half will stop using verbal and emotional abuse."

The turning point

At the Shine stopping-violence programme, men are asked to watch a video. It is just over 10 minutes long.

It's a guy talking about his life; his experiences with family violence.

It's a simple video but, by the end of the programme, it's what many men pinpoint as the moment they knew their lives had to change.

The video is of Tony Porter, an American educator and activist who is internationally recognised for his effort to end violence against women, speaking at a Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference.

Mr Porter's message in the video is simple: the way many men see "manhood" is all wrong.

"Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating. No pain, no emotions -- with the exception of anger -- and definitely no fear," he said.

"That men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you [women] should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior, women are inferior; that men are strong, women are weak; that women are of less value, the property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects.

"I've later come to know that to be the collective socialisation of men, better known as the 'man box'."

Mr Porter said the man box contained "all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man.

"Without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there's some stuff that's just straight-up twisted, and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.

"Seen collectively, we as men are taught to have less value in women, to view them as property and the objects of men. We see that as an equation that equals violence against women ... we have to come to understand that less value, property and objectification is the foundation and the violence can't happen without it. So we're very much a part of the solution as well as the problem."

Mr Porter finishes by showing a photo of his daughter Jay.

"The world I envision for her -- how do I want men to be acting and behaving?" he poses.

"I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men; that it's okay to not be dominating, that it's okay to have feelings and emotions, that it's okay to promote equality, that it's okay to have women who are just friends and that it's okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.

"I remember asking a 9-year-old boy, 'What would life be like for you if you didn't have to adhere to this man box?' He said to me, 'I would be free'."

• In tomorrow's Herald: The front line. While you are getting the kids to school, going to work, socialising with friends, police, refuge staff and the courts are dealing with family violence. It never stops, it never sleeps. We take you to the coal face.

Help for men

If you are experiencing or witnessing violence, or want to change your own behaviour, you can ask for help. It can be hard, but getting involved or reaching out for help for yourself could save a life.

• It's Not OK information line 0800-456-450 for information about services that can help men.

• Shine runs a No Excuses stopping-violence programme for men. Ring the helpline on 0508-744-633 to find a programme near you or even if you just want to talk to someone and talk through your options.

• The National Network of Stopping Violence Services also has information on stopping-violence programmes.

If you're in danger NOW:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you
• Run outside and head for where there are other people
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you
• Take the children with you
• Don't stop to get anything else
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women's Refuge: Free national crisisline operates 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisisline 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz

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Take a stand - NZ is #BetterThanThis

New Zealand has the worst rate of family violence in the developed world. One in three women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lives.

Take a stand. Change your social media profile picture to demand that we are better than this. Right-click on this image below (or press and hold on your mobile device) to save, then upload to your social profiles. Or you can download the image here.

- NZ Herald

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