In 1994 a movie called Once Were Warriors came out. It is a New Zealand film about a dysfunctional Maori family and its problems with domestic violence. Hard hitting it was. A movie with a R16 rating, it was controversial and popular at the same time. In it a lady named Beth Heke slowly realizes that the same man she is married to and loves and has three children with is a monster whose fists are the law. Beth is regularly the target, and it affects the way her children behave and how they view society. Things come to a head when her daughter Grace is raped by Uncle Bully (one of Jakes drinking mates)and commits suicide. Jake fails to attend the tangi (funeral). The movie ends with Beth confronting Jake over Uncle Bully’s actions at the bar he frequents, and Jake’s reaction is predictably explosive. Beth walks away and Jake follows her into the car park where one final argument takes place to the sound of police cars in the distance.
When I heard that Minister of Justice Amy Adams wants to introduce tougher penalties for domestic violence, my immediate reaction was mixed. On one hand a clear signal needs to be sent to abusers that this is not an acceptable form of conduct to abuse ones spouse. In that context it was a positive step, but on the other hand before we even get to the point of jailing abusers, we have to make sure that the complainant feels comfortable about coming forward. In that context, I was tempted to scream – there have been numerous reviews done both in New Zealand and more recently by the United Nations in the form of their Universal Periodic Review of human rights. They have covered in depth the causes of domestic violence here and how we need to control it. Years of promises and proposed policies have been bandied about by National and Labour to make it look like they want to tackle the problem, but all of these years, all of these promises and policies later, nothing much has changed.
Sometimes I wonder if the politicians are deliberate dilly dallying on the issue because they simply do not the spinal fortitude to act. Other times I wonder if some influential people in the major parties have agreed to deliberately stone wall the issue because for whatever reason it is somehow not in their interests to act. Sometimes I wonder even if it is a case of death by a thousand cuts, by gradually but deliberately cutting off the funding and resources one agency at a time.
Maybe I am cynical. Certainly I do not think New Zealanders are being impatient. Frankly speaking our domestic violence levels are third world. The rates of spousal and child abuse are simply intolerable. Various non-governmental organizations including Amnesty International have spoken out on the issue. People like Louise Nicholas who claimed to have been raped by police officers when she was in a vulnerable situation; Lesley Elliot whose daughter Sophie was stabbed to death by her former boyfriend Clayton Weatherston have all tried to put pressure on the Government to act. But will it?
In the mean time, I wonder how many more people will have to experience a Once Were Warriors upbringing.