By REBECCA WALSH
New Zealand females are being killed at one of the highest rates in the industrialised world, an American study has found.
The Harvard University research, which looked at murder rates in the top 25 industrialised nations, put New Zealand as the fifth worst.
A New Zealand report into domestic violence, to be released on Monday, reinforces the Harvard research.
It says abuse against women is a major public health issue and calls for improved public understanding of abuse and formal training for police and judges.
"Abuse is minimised, excused and tacitly accepted," says co-author Dr Jennifer Hand.
The research says the US has a female murder rate five times that of all the other countries combined. Finland has the second-highest rate, followed by Switzerland and Belgium.
The research by Professor David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Centre, found the US murder rate was closely tied to levels of gun ownership.
In contrast, only one of the 25 female homicides in New Zealand in 1998 was firearm related.
Professor Hemenway said females were more likely to be killed at home by a spouse, ex-boyfriend or other intimate acquaintance.
Men were typically killed away from home by a "non-intimate".
New Zealand experts were not surprised by the figures, pointing to the large number of domestic-related murders in this country.
But a police representative said it was difficult to compare overseas crime statistics with New Zealand figures as there were significant differences in the way they were recorded.
Criminologist Dr Greg Newbold believed the high levels of domestic violence in the country's Maori and Pacific Island populations - roughly about four times that of the rest of the population - boosted the figures "beyond what you would expect".
New Zealand's homicide rate had peaked in 1992 at 73 but since then it had dropped to about 50 a year, he said.
Ruth Busch, associate professor of law at Waikato University, said research showed that in about 40 per cent of cases women in New Zealand were killed by their present or estranged intimate partner.
But she believed there had been a "back sliding" by police and agencies dealing with domestic violence. "We are starting to see what I would call a minimisation of domestic violence."
She cited the case of a Cambridge volunteer firefighter, who was given a discharge without conviction last month after holding an unloaded gun against his wife's throat and repeatedly pulling the trigger.
"It's a paradigm case for why we have a high domestic homicide rate for women because we continue to minimise the impact of domestic violence."
Tragic toll of murdered women
Among the latest female homicide victims in New Zealand are:
* Lower Hutt woman Kate Alkema, 36, murdered while walking by the Hutt River a week ago today.
* Mangere woman Langaola Ahau, 23, killed in her home in February. Her husband, Lamonai Ahau, has been charged with murder.
* Mya Sollis, 73, found on Punakaiki Beach in January. A 32-year-old man has been charged with murder and sexual violation.
* Aplin sisters Saliel, 12 and Olympia, 11, died in their Masterton home in December. Their stepfather, Bruce Howse, has been sent for trial on murder charges.
* Marlene Kelly, a 40-year-old sex worker and mother of six, stabbed to death in the Otahuhu Shopping Centre carpark in February. A 37-year-old man has been charged with murder.
* Denise Holmes, 27, a prostitute from Glen Innes, found suffocated on her bed in January. A 22-year-old man faces a murder charge.
By REBECCA WALSH