Key Points:

Back in 2001, long before Sue Bradford's controversial Section 59 legislation entered the public consciousness, a kindly Samoan minister looked down from the pulpit and told the grown-up members of his flock to stop hitting their children.

The Rev Dr Peniamina Vai had decided enough was enough. It pained him to see the adults lashing out at the fidgeting, inattentive children. Everyone felt free to smack at will, even the Sunday school teachers. Well, why not? It was countenanced by the Bible, was it not? And wasn't tough discipline part of what we like to think of as "our culture"?

No, and no, argued the reverend. Suffer the little children, Jesus had said. Pretty soon the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa in Dawson Rd, Otara, became a smack-free zone. Or, to give it its real name, a violence-free zone.

Strangely, the sky did not fall, and the church did not self-destruct under the weight of rampaging, out-of-control children. I know this because I visited last week, when the good reverend and his church played host to the launch of the Pacific campaign for Action on Family Violence. I'm happy to report that Mr Vai and his church were still standing.

How do you change a culture that tolerates high levels of violence, even towards its most vulnerable? Mr Vai might say the first step is to make up your mind to do it.

To change behaviour you have to change attitudes, and that requires inspired leaders who are willing to step out of their cultural comfort zones. If you're in a rush, like those working at the coalface of family violence, then nothing short of a law change and a flash television advertising campaign will do.

It might be easier than we think. Preliminary research results on those "It's not OK" TV advertisements, which heralded the start of the campaign against family violence, show that after just two months, the campaign is already having a significant impact on Pacific people.

Nearly 80 per cent of Pacific Islanders remember the adverts, and almost all of them (95 per cent) agree with the ad's message that family violence isn't OK but that it's OK to seek help. Of those who remember them, 70 per cent said the ads had made them think about family violence, and 36 per cent said that as a direct result of the TV ads, they'd talked to family or friends about violence they were worried about.

The Chief Family Court Judge, Peter Boshier, who is on the Ministerial Taskforce on Family Violence, hoped this was the beginning of "a swelling tide which will sweep in new attitudes". He says the hardest part for many people is knowing where to start; the campaign has provided the language to start the conversation.

Language matters, it seems. How much smoother the passage of Sue Bradford's bill might have been if those opposed to it hadn't got in first and framed it as an "anti-smacking bill" which would usurp the rights of parents to lovingly discipline their children, rather than a long overdue attempt to stop abusive people hiding behind the law when they seriously hurt their children.

The Anglican minister Dr Hone Kaa, who called last week's summit to look for solutions to the unacceptably high rate of child abuse among Maori, didn't bother to hedge his words. "We own the problem, we find the solution," he said, even if that meant narking on the whanau. As he pointed out, "Tamariki are more likely to be abused and killed by their whanau than by any other group in the country. It is time to stop the genocide."

The primary and often overlooked victims of family violence are children, says Preventing Violence in the Home in a harrowing 2005 report which notes a high correlation between child abuse and domestic violence.

A random sample of 30 Pakeha, Maori, Pacific and Asian families visited by the agency's Child Crisis Team between July and November 2004 found children whose lives were marred by terror and anxiety.

About 75 per cent of them had been exposed to episodes of extreme violence at home; some (including a child as young as 14 months) had actively tried to intervene, and some had been hurt in the crossfire between their parents.

If these children weren't crying or feeling overwhelming sadness, they were exhibiting aggressive and disrespectful behaviour, mimicking the behaviour of their abusive parents. One boy said his head hurt with angry thoughts.

At Otara last week, I watched a group of confident, cheeky, bright-eyed pre-schoolers being instructed with words rather than smacks. They were achingly small and innocent. I couldn't imagine them being subjected to the kind of fear and abuse that too many children live in.

Imagine a 3-year-old who's had to learn to go to her room and shut her door whenever her mother or anyone else is annoyed. She's the one who tells her mother "this home is a no-hitting home".

Or a 5-year-old boy who picks up the baby and leaves the house if his parents so much as raise their voices. Evidently, he rings the police each time, which has had a huge positive effect on his parents.

If only that wasn't reality.

*tapu.misa@gmail.com