Do one in three women in New Zealand really live in fear?

Women's Refuge made the claim in its fundraising advertising in July and was slapped down last week by the Advertising Standards Authority for exaggerating research that suggested a third of women experience physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lifetime.

It's tempting to overcook statistics in these tough economic times but domestic violence needs no exaggeration; about half of all homicides in New Zealand are domestic. The fear is real, too - crippling, nauseating fear that eats away at any semblance of a normal life.

Take, for example, the young Auckland woman who was so terrified of her ex-partner that she used to hide in a small cupboard every day while she waited for her mother to come home. Her former boyfriend had threatened to kill her; he had even driven her to the Waitakere Ranges and pointed out the spot where he was going to hide her body.

She might have been another tragic news story by now - but a year later, she was feeling safe, in a new relationship and able to move on with her life.

The good news is a new programme based on an idea so simple and obvious that it seems remarkable no one thought of it sooner.

It seems that if you make victims' homes more secure, provide them with personal alarms that can have the police at their door within minutes of activation, and wrap a bunch of supportive agencies around them, they feel safer almost immediately.

It has always seemed to me the height of injustice that victims of domestic violence should be the ones to uproot themselves and their children, depriving themselves of the support of family and friends, and the stability of schools and jobs, while the abuser goes on with his life virtually undisturbed.

But under Safe@Home, designed and trialled in Auckland's western suburbs by the anti-violence agency Shine, some high-risk victims of domestic abuse are able to remain at home.

Simple really - and cheap at a cost of about $4000 per home, especially when weighed against a single homicide, which the Treasury estimates costs the country about $3.9 million.

Safe@Home is based on similar projects in the UK and Australia, and takes a practical, crime prevention approach to domestic violence. It's based on theories that opportunity is a root cause of crime. According to criminologists Marcus Felson and Ronald Clarke: "The theory of crime rests on a single principle - that easy or tempting opportunities entice people into criminal action."

What is easy and tempting about domestic violence victims? They are sitting ducks, says Shine's executive director Jane Drumm. Accessible and isolated - at home, out of public view and away from outside help, and at the mercy of a motivated offender.

No wonder then that a small percentage of victims account for the majority of violent incidences. According to the 1996 New Zealand National Survey of Crime Victims, 6.1 per cent of victims are victimised five or more times, amounting to more than 68 per cent of all violent offences perpetrated.

Anti-violence campaigns have tended to concentrate on trying to change the societal attitudes that feed the offender's sense of entitlement ("it's not okay").

They have their place, but Safe@Home has proven that more practical measures get more immediate results. With their reinforced houses and alarms in place, victims start to sleep at night, which means they cope better with the demands of work, study and parenting. The fear abates to a manageable level, and in some cases disappears altogether.

They and their children benefit. And the threatening figure in their lives appears to back off, aware their intended victim is no longer isolated but being actively supported.

The programme only accepts those it assesses as being at extreme risk of injury or death; the offender must be out of the house, and the victim must be sure there is no chance of reconciliation.

Since the programme was launched in late 2008, 100 people have been accepted on to it. When you include their nearly 200 children, that's a lot of lives saved. There have been some minor assaults, mainly because the ex-partner was allowed back into the house.

Part of the project's strength is a steering committee of senior officials from the police, the Fire Service, Child, Youth and Family, Winz, the Ministry of Social Development, Health and Housing New Zealand.

That's the good news. The bad news is that funding (mostly from CYF) is limited to Auckland's western suburbs, and is guaranteed only until the end of this financial year.

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com