Story: Domestic violence

New Zealand has a long-running problem with domestic violence. Although surveys show women can be violent to their partners, it is men who show up most in the criminal justice system for vicious abuse of women and children.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
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Story Summary

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Violence at home

The mental, physical or sexual abuse of people within their homes is known as domestic violence or family violence. Victims of abuse may be children or adults.

It is mostly men who appear before the police, courts and social services for violently abusing women and children.

Family and friends may not know the abuse is occurring. Victims can develop trauma symptoms such as depression.

In 2014 police attended 101,981 incidents of domestic violence.

19th century

In the 19th century women were considered inferior to men. Many people thought a husband had the right to physically discipline his wife. Domestic violence was widespread. Some women took their husbands to court for abusing them, but most married women were dependent on their husbands financially, and would have no money if the man was sent to jail. This discouraged women from reporting abuse.

Changing attitudes to violence

Domestic violence was often tolerated by society and police were reluctant to intervene in domestic disputes. Suffragists struggling for women's right to vote highlighted the relationship between alcohol and domestic violence. Organisations that spoke out against violence against women were the Women's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1885, the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, formed in 1893 and the National Council of Women of New Zealand, established in 1896.

In the 1970s the women’s movement identified domestic violence as an important issue. Feminists set up women’s refuges and rape crisis centres. From 1973 women with dependent children could receive the domestic purposes benefit. Women with violent partners could leave and support themselves. In 1985 rape within marriage became a criminal offence.

Law and policing changes

Under the Domestic Protection Act 1982 a person who used or threatened violence against their partner or children could be arrested and held for 24 hours. If a separated person stalked their ex-partner, the ex could get a protection order from the courts.

In the 1980s police began to arrest violent offenders rather than wait for their victims to make a complaint.

In 1995 law changes extended domestic-violence offences to include abuse by same-sex partners, flatmates, carers and other family members.

But legislation did not always protect people from domestic violence – between 1995 and 2007, when the 1995 law changes were reviewed, over 200 women and children died in domestic-violence incidents.

21st century

In the 21st century domestic violence remained a major problem in New Zealand. There was considerable research on domestic violence, and there were groups committed to ending it. Increasingly the words family violence or intimate partner violence were used to refer to this form of violence in New Zealand. There has also been increasing recognition of the ways in which coercion may occur without evidence of physical damage to an abused partner. Government reports on family violence were produced and new legislation was developed to provide better ways of responding to domestic violence and addressing recurrent violence and coercion of intimate partners or former partners. 

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Domestic violence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 May 2018)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Mar 2018