Kōrero: Domestic violence

Whārangi 3. Changing attitudes to violence, 1893 to 1985

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Women were hampered in their attempts to get legal remedies for domestic violence. Winning the vote in 1893 gave them a say at the polling booth, but for years they remained unrepresented in institutions where laws were made or administered. There was no woman member of Parliament until 1933, and for several more decades there were few women politicians. Women could not sit on juries until 1942, and not on an equal basis with men until 1963. There were no women police until 1941, and not many women lawyers before the 1980s.

Support for victims

After 1893, organisations including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Council of Women called for political and legal action on a range of women’s issues, of which domestic violence was just one. It was, however, the central concern of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children (SPWC), formed in Auckland in 1893, with branches set up later in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The SPWC assisted battered women and took prosecutions, but because of its few branches and funding problems, could give only limited help.

‘The sanctity of marriage’

For much of the 20th century, marriage was widely promoted as the ultimate goal for women, so their educational and work opportunities were restricted. As a consequence, women’s lower status within society, and within marriage, continued. Domestic violence, which exploited and reinforced this power imbalance, remained common. Between 1956 and 1969, for example, 30% of all common assaults recorded occurred within families.

This violence was often trivialised or ignored. The main goal of the SPWC (later called the Home and Family Society) was to preserve the traditional family unit. It was interested only in cases of ‘excessive’ violence, and believed that some women had provoked their abuse. Police took a similar approach, and were reluctant to arrest violent men when called to ‘domestic disputes’. Many people regarded marriage as a special relationship in which other people should not interfere.

Women were also often reluctant to report violence – they were scared of complaints not being taken seriously, of renewed violence as a response, and of turning in someone who they might also still love.


When the women’s liberation movement began in New Zealand in the 1970s, feminists realised that domestic and sexual violence were major problems that had been hushed up. They believed that any violence, not just ‘excessive’ violence, towards women was unacceptable, and set up rape crisis centres and refuges.

Women’s refuges

The first women’s refuges opened in Christchurch (1974), Auckland (1975) and Dunedin (1976) to provide accommodation for women in violent relationships. They were followed by others around the country, and in 1981 they joined together as the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges (NCIWR). In the 1980s refuges run by and for Māori women opened. Later refuges specifically for Pacific women and women of other ethnic groups were started. A nationwide survey of refuges, completed in 1983, gave a more accurate idea of the high level of domestic violence than prosecution statistics could, and led to some government funding for the NCIWR.

Rape in marriage

During the first decades of the 20th century several court cases questioned a married woman’s right to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband. Judges ruled differently in each case, but some supported the right of women to refuse. In the late 1930s, for instance, Justice Henry Ostler stated his opinion that ‘a woman on marriage does not sell her body’.1 However it was not until 1985 that rape within marriage actually became a criminal offence.

As well as offering a safe haven, refuges provided telephone crisis lines and counselling programmes for women and children. They helped women to make informed decisions about the future by providing advice on taking legal action and obtaining benefits and housing. They also ran community education programmes about domestic violence.

Rape Crisis

In 1973 the first rape crisis telephone helpline was started by feminists, and the first rape crisis centre was set up in Auckland in 1978. More groups were set up and two parallel collectives were established: Te Kakano o te Whanau (1985) for Māori women, and the National Collective of Rape Crisis and Related Groups (1986). Like the refuges, Rape Crisis provided counselling, legal advice and support, and also public education.

Stopping violence

In the 1980s men started running non-violence programmes for other men. Organisations working to end domestic violence joined together as Te Kupenga Whakaoti Mahi Putunga/National Network of Stopping Violence Services. The network promoted social change to end men’s violence towards women and children.

Legal aid and the DPB

Law changes assisted women trying to escape violent home situations. In 1969 legal aid became available for those who could not afford a lawyer. The introduction of the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) for sole parents in 1973 made it more possible for women with dependent children to leave abusive relationships and survive economically.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Barbara Brookes, ‘A weakness for strong subjects: the women’s movement and sexuality.’ New Zealand Journal of History, 27, no. 2 (October 1993): p. 155. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Domestic violence - Changing attitudes to violence, 1893 to 1985', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/domestic-violence/page-3 (accessed 24 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 19 Jul 2018