By Kim Griggs for RNZ

Every day five people are charged with strangling someone they supposedly love. Strangulation is such a strong precursor to someone eventually dying in a domestic violence incident, it was recently made a separate offence. As new laws and government initiatives are being put in place, Kim Griggs investigates whether the changes can call time on violence in New Zealand homes.

When you're strangled, it takes just 10 seconds to lose consciousness. At 15 seconds you lose control of your bladder. Within two minutes ... death.

That's the timeline of strangulation, an offence so closely linked to deaths from domestic violence that if someone puts their hands around your neck and squeezes, you are seven times more likely to go on to die, because people who get angry enough to strangle are more likely to do it again and at some point they might get too angry to release their grip.

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Anne*, a domestic violence survivor, knows that timeline well and the powerlessness she felt in trying to stop what might be coming next.

"He pushed me down onto the ground and lay on top of me with his hands around my throat and looked me in my eyes as he strangled me.

"I couldn't talk, I couldn't scream, I couldn't make any noise.

"You have got no choice but to succumb to it."

Her experience is one replicated day after day, night after night, in New Zealand.

Since strangulation became a separate offence last December, there have been 1246 charges of strangulation laid - 97 per cent of those who have been charged are men.

New Zealand has one of the highest reported rates of domestic violence in the developed world. A raft of changes to laws were brought in December 2018, and July this year, that aim to tackle the level of domestic abuse.

The new laws include a toughening of the definition of family violence and bring in a specific offence of assaulting a family member.

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A significant amount of new money has been allocated to back this new legislation. This year $320m over four years was budgeted for family violence and sexual violence initiatives, the largest investment ever to try to reduce the level of abuse. In addition, a new agency has been created to oversee the work.

While there have been government initiatives over the years, the MP who has shepherded many of the changes into law, Jan Logie, says this is a new way of tackling the daily violence that recognises and takes seriously the early flags that had often been dismissed.

Green MP Jan Logie has shepherded many of the changes into law.
Green MP Jan Logie has shepherded many of the changes into law.

"It's not just getting the bash on a one-off random incident. It's actually this whole pattern of different forms of coercion and control that seek to trap, typically women, in these relationships."

Not just 'the bash'

The violence at the hands of the very people victims should be able to trust, has many forms.

Beth* thought her husband would kill her. She had gone out to check the mail, but she thinks her husband must have misunderstood what she was doing, and thought she was leaving.

"All I felt was this person jump on me, and I remembered crashing to the ground on our driveway.

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"He's about 120kg and I'm about 50kg, and I remember crashing onto the concrete and I remember thinking to myself, this is it. I'm dead."

And it's not always physical - victims of domestic abuse can face torment that is more psychological or controlling, like restricting the use of their phone or the car, having their personal information combed through on their phone, and not being allowed to make simple decisions.

Beth's abuser broke the family devices, trying to cut off who she could contact.

"I came home one time and he had literally cut every cord to every appliance in the house, including my daughter's iPad cord, phone chargers, vacuum cleaner, toaster, fridge, freezer."

To deal with situations like these the new laws broaden what is considered abuse - so hurting a family pet, withholding medicine, or dowry abuse - where a woman is constantly harassed by their new family over disputes about her dowry - are now also family harm.

'NZ's dirty little secret'

Police are called to deal with family violence every four minutes and once there, they spend on average about 1.5 hours dealing with what's been going on.

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"The size of the problem in New Zealand is frightening," says acting Superintendent Bronwyn Marshall.

She leads the Safer Whānau unit for the police, the section responsible for dealing with and trying to change New Zealand's shameful statistics. Her eyes glisten as she describes her work but her voice is steely.

"The prevalence of family violence and sexual violence in New Zealand - it's like this dirty little secret that we've got. I think all New Zealanders need to really wake up and think about how can they help? Because the first person a victim goes to is a friend or family.

"They don't come to police. They don't go to specialist family violence agencies. They go to people that they can trust.

"And we all collectively need to get on board and think about what we can do to help. Because unless we all start turning our minds to this we are not going to change the behaviours that we have got going on in this country."

While New Zealand is outstanding in all the wrong ways when it comes to violence, it is not alone in managing this cruelty that overwhelmingly affects women and children. One in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual abuse from the people closest to them.

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Katja Iversen, director of Women Deliver, which runs the world's biggest gender equality conference, says the ability to live a life free of violence should be fundamental to living life to its full potential.

"Gender based violence is one of the issues and problems that cuts across income, social status, geographies, hierarchies and is prevalent in every society. We see that societies where women's status is more equal also have less violence. Where women have an income, where women get an education, also equals a decrease in violence.

"It has not eliminated it, but it can decrease it."

The concept that women should be able to live lives free from violence has become a global goal.

One of the women trying to achieve that is Kalliopi Mingeirou, who heads the Ending Violence Against Women section at the United Nations. It's her job to help spread the message of the best way to stamp out domestic abuse. At the most recent Women Deliver conference in Vancouver she sheeted home much of the blame to rigid gender roles.

"Violence against women, intimate partner violence, it's such a normalised part of our society.

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"It's accepted that women and girls in their community and in their homes, they have a very specific status within families and so they are almost an inferior status. There are also often very negative gender norms and roles within the families and within the communities."

She advocates for more education that starts early.

"We know that younger boys and girls at a very early age, they already formulate their own beliefs and behaviours and practices. So working with children from a very early stage is very important to start changing the social norms."

Dr Ang Jury, chief executive of Women's Refuge.
Dr Ang Jury, chief executive of Women's Refuge.

That's something that resonates with Women's Refuge chief executive, Dr Ang Jury. She's in favour of the law changes, but thinks it's time to expand past basic awareness-raising. Jury says what does need more work is prevention.

"I think you'd need to be a totally isolated hermit living in a cave somewhere for the last 10 years for you to not know that family violence isn't all right, that it's not okay.

"So we know what family violence looks like, what it sounds like. We by and large sort of know what to do about it. But when we are talking about education I think we need to be investing significantly more in our little people - not our teenagers, but our little people - so that they can learn, not what domestic and family violence is, but learn how to be in a relationship with each other.

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"I don't think we do that very well in New Zealand."

So, will all this make a difference? Logie hopes so.

"It really feels to me that we are in a moment in time where there's an impatience to get on and turn this around."

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

SEXUAL HARM - DO YOU NEED HELP?

If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.

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• 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 crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843

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• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633

• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450

• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584

• Ministry of Justice:

• National Network of Stopping Violence:

• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent.

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