Janet Fanslow: Facts on violence against women

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The facts are in on violence against women. Photo / Thinkstock
The facts are in on violence against women. Photo / Thinkstock

I write to correct some of the misrepresentations of fact in Bob McCoskrie's opinion piece that appeared in the Herald this week.

The claim that one in three women have been victims of intimate partner violence in their lifetime is correct. The statistic is based on findings from the New Zealand Violence Against Women Study, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2004. The largest of its kind ever undertaken in New Zealand, the study used state-of-the-art methods in collecting information on prevalence of violence, based on a questionnaire developed and used extensively by the World Health Organisation.

We collected data from almost 3000 New Zealand women. Yes, they lived in Auckland and the Waikato, but comparison of the characteristics of our sample (e.g. age, ethnicity, marital status) with women in the nation as a whole makes it clear that our findings can be generalised to women in NZ. The one-in-three statistic refers to women's experience of physical and/ or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Physical violence includes such things as being slapped, kicked, hit with a fist, burned, choked or threatened with a weapon.

Yes, the entry criteria was "did this happen to you one or more times in your life", but we also have data on frequency. Over 80 per cent of women who experienced physical violence, and over 90 per cent of those who experienced sexual violence were hurt on more than one occasion, in multiple ways, or both.

The statistics are actually worse if you include prevalence of emotional violence. Data from the same study indicate that in their lifetime just over half of New Zealand women report that their partners have: insulted them or made them feel bad about themselves; belittled or humiliated in them front of other people; or scared or intimidated them on purpose. Physical and sexual violence almost always co-occurred with emotional violence. These high lifetime rates of physical, sexual and emotional violence are of concern because of the long-term health and social consequences created by trauma.

Do these statistics mean that half of women are currently "living in fear"? No, and this has never been a claim that has been made by the research. Compared with other countries, New Zealand reported the biggest decrease between lifetime and 12-month prevalence.

This suggests that Women's Refuges, courts, and other supports that New Zealand has to put in place to address partner violence are going some way toward ensuring that those who are unfortunate enough to experience partner violence, don't have to stay there.

Did we survey men? No, we didn't, for a variety of reasons like research ethics, safety of respondents, and insufficient budget to answer that research question too.

Does that mean we think women's violence against men doesn't occur? Nope. We know the statistics from the NZ Crime Victimisation Survey too, and we think that men who are victimised in their relationships also deserve support and help. Because for us, as violence prevention researchers, and as human beings, compassion is not a zero sum game.

So what about the gender issue? Is there one? Yes, absolutely. Data on deaths from family violence in NZ for 2007-2010 indicate big gender differences, with 75 per cent of homicide victims being women murdered by their male partner or ex-partner. Of homicides in couples, 70 perpetrators were male and 9 were female. We also think the fact that women make up 90 per cent of those applying for protection orders through the Family Court is a significant piece of the puzzle.

Our findings are consistent with the USA National Violence Against Women Survey, the largest study in the world undertaken to answer the question about male versus female perpetrated violence. This study documented significant gender differences, with women more likely to experience physical violence by male partners, more likely to be injured, and more likely to be stalked.

So what do we pledge, with or without a white ribbon? We endorse Mr McCoskrie's call for a pledge to stop violence towards men, women and children. We would also support a call for a nation-wide discussion about what sort of relationships we want people to have (healthy? Respectful? Challenging? Fun? Nurturing? Ones that foster personal growth?), and what we as a society are willing to do to support people to achieve these goals.

Along the way, we might also make a commitment to reporting data accurately, and not being afraid to address the hard issues, like gender, that are staring us in the face. Because while gender-based violence is not good for women, it is also not good for men. We need them to be standing emotionally and physically strong beside us, as partners in all senses of the word.

* Dr Janet Fanslow is a senior lecturer in Social and Community Health at The University of Auckland and is co-director of the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse.

- NZ Herald

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