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Transforming society

Posted November 23, 2017

Guys, we need to talk. And we need to take a stand. If we do that, we can transform New Zealand society, so says Garth Baker from White Ribbon.   

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the developed world. Police here are called to a domestic violence case every five minutes, one-in-three women experience physical and/or sexual abuse from a partner in their lifetime, and possibly up to 80 per cent of domestic violence goes unreported. But with a bit of respect and by having a conversation, we can change this, says Garth.

Garth is at the forefront of programmes in New Zealand to help stop and prevent domestic violence. He designed six behaviour change programmes used by the justice system—every person who gets a protection order taken out against them is required to complete one of Garth’s courses as part of the order. He also writes for White Ribbon’s Tool Box, which provides practical tips for living out and modelling violence-free relationships, and researches violence by men against women.

Growing up in the Methodist church, Garth says he was raised with a strong sense of social awareness that he took into his working life. Among a range of jobs he was the first male educator for Family Planning, worked with The Salvation Army in the 1980s as a supervisor for a training programme with unemployed people, and was a life skills tutor at a polytechnic.

After researching and designing violence prevention projects for 11 years, Garth says it’s a great opportunity to make change in an area linked to a whole range of other social problems, including issues of mental health. Preventing domestic violence is a cause he’s passionate about and where there are both huge challenges and huge positives, he says.

‘This is a long-term social problem that can be changed—I think that’s quite clear. I might not live to see the change, but if I can spend the last of my working life on this I feel I have made a contribution, and doing something is a hell of a lot better than doing nothing.’

The root of the problem

The key driver of domestic violence is in our culture; what we expect of men and the way men are supposed to behave, Garth says. If the driver is culture, the main risk factors for that turning into violence are when men believe they’ve got the power over women, and they stick to a rigid division between men’s and women’s roles, which they then enforce using violence, he says.

‘The other aspects are when men get a sense that it’s only acceptable to express anger with violence, not their full range of emotions.’

There’s also an expectation among some men in Kiwi culture about how they have to behave and what their mates think. ‘We talk about the social norm—what individual men think other men tolerate or support. We’re pretty crap at it. If you talk to an individual man, typically he will overestimate how many other men are using violence or would support violence.’

Fortunately, Garth says, change is not about always saying no or looking at the negatives, but in saying yes. Positive, practical steps work best to make change and it’s something White Ribbon is encouraging men to get on board with: to say yes to respectful, healthy relationships where each party gets the best out of it, yes to walking the talk and yes to being a leader for a culture that doesn’t tolerate violence.

The good news

This is where men who aren’t violent can help make a change, Garth says. The good news is that’s most of us—and we can change our culture.

One of the strongest studies around violence in New Zealand found that 21 per cent of men had used physical violence against their partner in the previous year, he says, but that means 79 per cent didn’t.

‘A lot more men are appalled by violence and support gender equality [than are violent]—but what people believe is different to how they act with their mates. Respect is a majority behaviour, but it’s a silent majority.’

That’s why men need to talk more and take a stand through things like wearing the white ribbon or making the White Ribbon pledge, which are both positive steps that work to help change the attitudes of society and of New Zealand culture, to say violence is not okay.

The change to people speaking up about violence really started in the past 10 years—that’s where we have seen the start of big changes in New Zealand, Garth says. ‘The key development in the past 10 years is public awareness that this is an issue. A lot of those early campaigns were around breaking the silence, and now we’ve moved to what we do about it.’

There’s been more reporting of violence and an increase in behaviour-change programmes. Although initially run for men referred by the courts, these programmes have seen a growing number of men from the general public asking to come along as they recognise their own issues and seek help to change.

Garth welcomes the new government’s move to appoint an under-secretary to the Minister of Justice to focus specifically on domestic and sexual violence issues as another shift in the right direction.

Work encouraging the silent majority to set the tone for all of New Zealand needs to continue, but work also needs to be stepped up with teenagers and young dads. These are the areas where research shows people can make the most change, and where men can be change makers, he says.

That’s where this year’s White Ribbon campaign is focused, encouraging people to model and teach respectful behaviour to boys and young men. For this year’s campaign, White Ribbon has launched a video called ‘Raising Our Men’ (available on its website) and they’re challenging men to step up and commit to something which is going to be a long-term change for our society. ‘We have been working on family violence seriously for about 12 years—we’re only at the beginning,’ Garth says.

How it works

A White Ribbon weekend at a local marae inspired Gore Corps Mission Team Leader Andrew Dunlop and a group of other men in the community to get together and help make that change, he says.

‘[The weekend] was a real eye-opener about the increasing violence in the community. It was a big time of sharing and there was a group of guys that said, “There’s nothing in Gore for guys.” Guys that realised they had an issue, they’d get the phonebook, but where do you look to go and get help?’

What the group decided was to start something where men who had been through court or jail, or recognised they had a problem, could share and help each other.

‘It’s an issue that’s not talked about with men. Often with Women’s Refuge, the wife or partner and kids are removed, but the issue is with the man often and that’s not talked about. So it was a support process, we’d meet and talk about what they were struggling with.’

They’d talk together about the origins of someone’s anger and violence, what triggered them, and healthy ways of expressing anger. But the group also went further, Andrew says. ‘It was helping men to live with a healthy family life. Violence in the family was a centre point, but we encompassed life really.’  

While a professional counsellor helped lead the group, if someone needed further help they would refer them on for professional support. ‘Our biggest thing with the group is it’s person-to-person, man-to-man; a place where they feel safe to talk.’

Some of the men, particularly those who had grown up with violence, did not realise the way they treated their partner or children was not appropriate, he said, so being part of the group made a huge difference to that awareness.

‘We have guys come in to the group and, after a while they open up about their struggles with not being able to express their anger, hurts, frustrations and disappointments appropriately. Being in the group helps them feel like they aren’t alone, and that a lot of men struggle with these things. They get to hear other men open up about things that helped them through these struggles, and help each other find safe ways of expressing these feelings.’

The challenge for the church

Garth believes the Christian church in New Zealand has a huge opportunity to lead on violence, as a place with a clear identity and culture and where people have a sense of belonging.

‘If the men are respectful, that’s a powerful example. Leadership is key. The message needs to be consistent: the words in the sermon need to match the action, and you have other leaders who need to be talking about it and walking it. Women need to be seen as equal and be treated that way.’

Men’s groups and youth groups are good places to start, while taking the White Ribbon pledge would be a good way for men to show their church’s commitment to violence prevention. Discussing the behaviour using resources from the White Ribbon Tool Box is a good place to start, says Garth. Or watching the ‘Raising Our Men’ video together and talking about what sort of men they want to be.  

‘White Ribbon day is a Saturday this year, so [churches could promote these messages] on the Sunday the day after. That’s the sort of thing White Ribbon promotions are about: exposing and going public about the behaviour we want, and promoting it as a positive solution.’

Another way was through the accreditation system White Ribbon has set up, where businesses and organisations can become accredited by effectively integrating violence prevention into their work model. The Salvation Army Whangarei Corps and Community Ministries is looking to become accredited, and Positive Lifestyle Community Coordinator Leah Perkins, who is leading that work, says this is a hugely important step to take.

In her work, Leah says about 80 per cent of the women she works with have been victims of physical or sexual violence and there’s a high tolerace of violence in the community. Given The Salvation Army’s values and work in the community, getting accredited is a no-brainer, she says.  

‘Why wouldn’t we do it? For me, having had that violence as part of my life growing up, to have had a beacon, an organisation saying that wasn’t okay, would have been huge. For me, it’s being a light on top of the hill, saying, “This is where we stand and this is a safe place for people to come.” ’

by Robin Raymond (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 18 November 2016, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.

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