When Labour leader David Cunliffe went to a Women's Refuge forum and apologised for being a man, he was trying to make an important point. Domestic violence, as he went on to say, is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children. That does not mean, as those who applauded Mr Cunliffe seem to think, that men in general are prone to violence against women or that all of their gender are somehow responsible for it. The point he wanted to make was quite the opposite: that no self-respecting man would ever, under any circumstances, hit a woman, and that any man who does so is deeply and despicably unmanly.
Most men receive this message as young boys. Long before a boy reaches school age, he ought to have realised that he must never hit a girl. Is this message still being given, or is it unfashionable now to make a distinction between the gender of those who may be hurt?
When the Labour leader made his declaration of shame last Friday, a social scientist claimed he was wrong to say family violence was perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women. Professor David Fergusson, who has studied the lives of 1265 people born in Christchurch in 1977, said his research suggested the rates of domestic violence by men and women are similar and in many instances involved mutual violence between couples. "Women do suffer more in terms of fearfulness and related outcomes," he said, "but what we do find in our study is that violence is usually mutual and there isn't a predominant aggressor."
It is hard to imagine a more irresponsible message to give to the sort of men who resort to violence against women.
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The idea that the woman may be equally to blame, even if she is also violent and even the initiator of the violence, is simply not acceptable. It is an excuse often heard from the unmanly and it should never be given a respectful hearing. Men have the physical advantage. It may be unfashionable to say so but it should not need to be said.
Domestic violence seems to be under more study than almost any other subject of concern. In just the past few weeks we have received the report of Sir Owen Glenn's $2 million independent inquiry, another report from the Family Violence Death Review led by University of Auckland Associate Professor Julia Tolmie, and policy announcements by both major political parties. All of them are critical of the institutions that must deal with the problem, none attack the problem at its source.
The Glenn report blamed the courts and called for a "review of the adversarial system that places an excessive burden of proof on victims". It promised specific proposals in another report by the end of this year but indicated they would involve reversing the burden of proof in prosecutions for domestic assault and ending the courts' "gender bias" which meant "perpetrators were often not held accountable for their behaviour".
The Family Violence Death Review committee, which studies fatal abuse, found gaps in exchange of information between agencies that try to identify potential killers and prevent fatalities.
Both National and Labour acknowledge the rate of family violence is high in New Zealand. National proposes to appoint a victims' adviser to the Minister of Justice, a trial of mobile safety alarms with GPS for victims, and a law change so that offenders may be ordered to wear a GPS tracking device. Labour promises an awareness programme similar to the "It's not OK" campaign.
Perhaps the campaign could be restyled, "It's not manly". If boys are brought up to respect their masculinity, women should be safer.
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