In January, Hon. Andrew Little, the New Zealand Justice Minister, told the United Nations that the New Zealand justice system is failing women. He said this because, as the Family Violence Clearinghouse reports, 1 in 3 New Zealand women experience physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of their male partner at some point in their life. The truth is, this statistic is much worse because domestic violence is often not reported.
Even though I live in America now, I grew up in New Zealand and this report doesn’t surprise me! Thirty-five years ago, when I started my career as a primary school teacher in Christchurch, New Zealand, the statistics were much the same. In my classroom of about fifteen girls, I knew that 1 in 3 girls would experience emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in their lifetime.
The problem is that this terrorism against women is very hidden. But what makes me proud to be a Kiwi is that unlike many other countries that have similar horrific domestic violence statistics, New Zealand is starting to own how it mistreats women. I want to applaud the Hon. Andrew Little for speaking up! New Zealand is a trail blazing country when it comes to female equality, having been the first to give women the vote and having had 3 female Prime Ministers. I hope New Zealand will again show the world how to create a society in which women are safe.
Why is this happening?
Domestic violence is not only a family problem or a parenting issue. It is a society-wide problem and a generational issue, and New Zealand women have been experiencing this level of violence for generations. The root causes of domestic violence are found in the way New Zealand society views women. Domestic violence is an expression of the sexist beliefs and patriarchal norms within New Zealand society and culture. Even though New Zealand is ahead of the curve with women enjoying equal rights within the law, the shocking domestic violence statistics reveals that equal rights laws do little to challenge and change deep-seated generational norms that women are there to be controlled, dominated, and to be “of service”.
What needs to be done?
Parenting classes, though helpful, do not get to the root of this societal problem. What is needed is for counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists, social workers, and people who work for charities to be trained to understand how the tolerance for, and normalizing of, violent behavior, as well as the emotional harm it inflicts, is passed down the generations from father to son and mother to daughter. These professionals need to be taught specific tools on how to uncover and change culturally condoned sexist beliefs and practices that are allowing grandmothers, mothers, and daughters to be abused by the men they love.
Through my work with mothers and daughters I have developed an exercise that maps women’s Mother-Daughter HistoryTM to three generations. This exercise guides women to map out the stories of their own life and their mother’s and grandmother’s lives, and more importantly, how the men in their generational family treat or mistreat the women they love. This mapping exercise uncovers how sexist cultural beliefs and practices are normalized within a generational family and how mothers and daughters are taught to think that “this is a woman’s lot” as my grandmother used to say. The mapping exercise also reveals how families are missing an emotional language that inquires after and honors what women feel and need emotionally.
In my twenty-plus years as a mother-daughter relationship therapist, I have worked with thousands of mothers and daughters of all ages and from different countries and cultures, and I have never mapped a Mother-Daughter History where the mother and grandmother knew how to say what they felt and needed emotionally. Every map I have drawn shows how around the world mothers and grandmothers have been taught to silence themselves. Most of my work is with adult daughters who have woken up and realized how emotionally silent the women in their family are. They want me to teach them how to speak what they feel and need emotionally, and they want their mother to also become emotionally literate. These daughters have connected the dots between their learned emotional silence and their tolerance for being silenced and abused in their relationships.
For example, in my generational family no one inquired after what women felt and needed. My mother and grandmother immigrated to New Zealand during the 1960’s and they didn’t know that this emotional language existed. And as a young wife back in the 1980’s in New Zealand I remember being angry about how my family and the people in my church and community treated me as my husband’s property. I was expected to cook and clean and take care of the children and support my husband’s career. And John wasn’t expected to do any domestic work or support my career. Nineteen years ago, when I attended my father’s funeral in Christchurch a man told my husband that he must let me use the telephone so that I could call my mother. And three years ago, when I returned to the church I was married in over 30 years ago for my mother-in-law’s funeral I was struck how little things had changed. Not a single person asked me about my life. They still saw me as a wife and mother and not as a person in my own right. This kind of sexist behavior is insidious and must be changed if women are to ever be fully equal, free, and safe!
Every country needs to wake up to the sexism that is lurking just beneath the surface and how this contributes to the police being called out to an incident of domestic violence every 4 minutes, as they are in New Zealand. We need to explore how people have learned to believe in “The Culture of Female Service”, that views women as selfless, sacrificing caregivers who have no needs of their own. I write about how harmful this commonly-held sexist belief is in my book “The Mother-Daughter Puzzle”. I believe that the expectation that women are society’s caregiving gender is central to the continuing struggle for real gender equality, and it is also responsible for much of the world’s violence against women.
When what women feel and need emotionally is inquired after in families and within all areas of society, and caregiving is viewed as a human quality and not a female quality, women will finally be safe. New Zealand has a unique opportunity to once again be a beacon to the world and show that it is possible to achieve a safe society for women in one generation. Yes, I do mean in one generation! In my work with mothers and daughters I see every day how women are stopping their daughters from inheriting sexist and abusive behavior patterns.
Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach. www.rosjke.com