Originally published in an Online Edition of Craccum Magazine (3 August 2020).
Unabridged Version edited September 2022.
Featured Image sourced from Vitor Barros of unsplash.com.
Content Warning: Domestic violence.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please contact 111.
If you are in need of support regarding domestic violence, please contact one of the following agencies:
Shakti 0800 742 584 (0800 SHAKTI)
Shine 0508 744 633
Women’s Refuge 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
As lockdown reached communities worldwide, emotional and physical isolation had placed the world in a petri dish for an unprecedented social experiment. In April 2020, United Nations Women reported a ‘shadow pandemic’, of domestic violence increasing under community lockdown. Many causal factors are to do with this, family stress, gendered labour in the family home, less chances of confidential reporting and survivors being less likely to go to neighbours for support.
This is my story of how I left my situation of family violence. My experience had brought me to a New Zealand of the 1970s, a place of social change but a place of stubbornly held misconceptions. But this is not the 1970s. With New Zealand having the highest rate of domestic violence in the OECD, the lack of an adaptive system means that thousands could never leave.
In order for mutual aid amongst communities to work, and for New Zealand to address domestic violence seriously, several things need to happen. This includes culturally aware conversations about abuse, the recognition of abuse beyond physical abuse and for communities and employers to understand that leaving domestic violence is one of the most dangerous and mentally difficult times in a survivor’s life.
Victimhood of domestic violence is predominantly shown in media as a woman, abused by a male partner. However, stories of migrant children estranged from their families, like me, are often abused by a parental figure who may be the mother. The lived experience of minorities is left out of what it means to recognise abuse and overcome it.
Communities have a responsibility to detect and report abuse. But on previous attempts to report my situation, the main response was inability to acknowledge an alternate culture. “You’re an adult. They can’t do that to you.” But they did. And what does that mean for me, in a New Zealand where most resources are around partner abuse? As New Zealand becomes more multicultural, we have to prepare for a generation of children who will be more liberal with their values in contrast with a most hierarchical, familial piety system as in some Asian, Middle Eastern and African cultures.
Breaking free from culture and family can be an incredibly difficult process. A more nuanced view of family violence is represented in the film ‘I, Tonya’, where parental abusers are often a primary source of encouragement and identity for their children. In spite of great resentment around the Tiger Parenting I experienced, I feel as though this was a contributor to me finding my work ethic, so a part of me felt like I owed my family and had to stay. These cultural factors add to emotional entrapment. Thus, as more migrant youth realise their situation, support needs to focus on supporting their identity as being between two worlds and easing any guilt they may face.
The Various Forms of Abuse
When people find out I am a survivor of abuse, the most common reaction has been, “Wow! How’d they beat you!?”. These comments focus on physical abuse, which impliedly dismisses abuse of other forms. Andrea Kelly, ex-wife of disgraced singer R Kelly, stated in a October 2018 interview that physical violence is often the aftermath of repeated emotional and verbal abuse. Victims shouldn’t have to wait to be beaten to know that it is abuse. The only reason I started suspecting emotional, financial and verbal abuse as abuse was after being a student of family law. Looking back, there were a number of failed opportunities to intervene. Former friends and school councellors were aware of severe episodes of verbal abuse but my incidents were never referred as I had not been hit and because past physical violence was ‘corporal punishment’ and rationalised as normal. It does not take long to find New Zealanders nostalgic for how ‘tough love’ corrected behaviour, this diminished my inner voice where I knew that my home environment was abnormal. It was only in my 20s where I am able to validate myself and say that abuse of any kind teaches fear. It primes children to accept violence to correct their behaviour into adulthood with their family or in relationships. Detection and discussion of abuse should extend to non-physical forms and should be accessible in environments other than university.
Out of the Frying Pan?
When I think about why it took me so long to leave, my mind goes to a conversation I overheard in a criminal law class. The situation was of a suicidal mother who was a victim of abuse. Upon leaving the class, a classmate said, “the mother was clearly overreacting, she should have just left”. ‘Just leaving’ is often the most dangerous part of a survivor’s life. To ‘just leave’ involves a plan of collecting belongings, financial stability, financial independence and a need to survive. Even just surviving requires an independent bank account and compassionate public, both of which I did not have at the time.
Being able to leave and survive the aftermath of abuse requires the assurance of the Real World. We look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once physical survival is achieved, emotional needs such as love, self esteem and self-actualisation need to be met. These cannot always be taught in isolation.
Dismissive attitudes, lack of understandings of the nuances of abuse and casual rationalising of other forms of abuse are all ways to invalidate survivors. As long as these continue, New Zealand does not address the needs of a growing list of survivors, creating the perfect conditions for the virus of family violence.