“New Zealand has a massive lack of understanding of the extent, and ongoing impact, of sexual offences against women.” This week’s column, published in The Nelson Mail on Wednesday 13 April.
As I write, many of my friends are out in the streets collecting for Wellington Rape Crisis.
Two major organisations supporting women in Nelson, the Women’s centre and our Refuge, are struggling to make ends meet.
A search on Givealittle reveals at least six refuges around the country fundraising to stay afloat.
Nelson City Council proposes slashing grants to community groups from $400k to $150k over the next three years.
And our Prime Minister likes pulling women’s hair.
Where am I going with all this?
New Zealand has a massive lack of understanding of the extent, and ongoing impact, of sexual offences against women.
These crimes exist on a spectrum. At one end is the so-called joke or compliment – yelling out of cars, inappropriate language or touching. At the other is rape.
“These are all part and parcel of the same issue,” says Eleanor Butterworth, Agency Manager at Wellington Rape Crisis.
“If we want to end sexual violence, we need to look at all of it.”
“What’s wrong with a little flirting?” you ask.
The problem is, there’s a massive difference between compliments and abuse.
Who has the power? Who can choose to walk away? Could the waitress in the Auckland café walk away?
She exercised the options she had – but she could not remove herself from the situation because it was her workplace. She did not have the power.
Amanda Bailey, who put up with John Key’s behaviour for months, said, “He was like the school yard bully tugging on the little girls’ hair trying to get a reaction, experiencing that feeling of power.”
She felt so “powerless and tormented” she “cried frustrated tears” in a back room.
Key says his actions were intended to be light-hearted.
“We have lots of fun and games there, there’s always lots of practical jokes and things.”
Butterworth acknowledges that, when you have the power, it can be difficult to know if your behaviour is welcome. Especially in a society that calls hair-pulling “light-hearted.”
You can ask, “Is the other person seeking me out, acting the same way, or actively returning the attention? If not, they may only be tolerating me – until they can get out. I don’t have their consent.”
Without consent from everyone involved, the activity is highly likely to be on the spectrum of abuse.
There was no consent in the “Roastbusters” case – yet they were not convicted of rape.
Even if they were, the maximum sentence for rape in New Zealand is 18-20 years. Given their age, and the options for appeals, parole, or probation, a high sentence is unlikely.
How could this possibly compare to the effect on victims who must live with what happened for the rest of their lives?
One in three New Zealand women experience domestic abuse – and this is only reported incidents, which police estimate at around 18 per cent of all cases.
“Survivors of sexual violence often feel unable to speak out, or try and aren’t believed,” says Butterworth.
“And a big reason for this is that they, and the people they try to talk to, are surrounded by ideas about unwanted sexual attention being a joke, a compliment, something they should “take”.
“When we pretend sexual harassment isn’t part of the same continuum as more “obvious” sexual violence, our acceptance of one means the other is minimised. Both involve exploiting other people’s lack of power. Both rely on socially pressuring survivors to be silent.”
I shudder to think of the social pressure experienced by Rachel Bailey – and the young women involved in the Roast Busters case.
That’s why women’s support centres like Women’s Refuge, Rape Crisis, and Sexual Abuse and Healing so crucial. It is utterly horrifying that they are struggling to survive.
“Increasing competition for community sector funds […] puts huge pressure on established groups to maintain existing services,” says Nelson Women’s Centre Coordinator Carrie Mozena.
The Women’s Centre, and SASH, which operate out the same building, both face large reductions in funding this year.
Mayor Rachel Reece responded to criticism by focusing on allocations rather than cuts, citing council’s various achievements, and saying a lot about “partnerships.”
She notes that the Community Assistance Fund sits outside council’s strategic and activity management planning, making it difficult to administer and monitor.
Does it not then seem rational to make it part of the strategic plan and focus on better administration, rather than cutting the fund?
I’m the first to admit I have little experience in city planning. I’m aware money doesn’t just get moved from one pot to another. But committing $600,000 to a new playground – while a lovely idea, and an obvious bonus for our community – is astounding to me when we face losing essential services.
And if local government can’t step up, maybe our Prime Minister could spend less time in cafés, and more examining rapidly disappearing budgets towards the (at least) one in three women who need these vital organisations every year.