The Violence of New Zealand Culture.

New Zealand has some of the highest family violence and child abuse rates among comparable countries and we top the lists of suicide and bullying statistics too.  Family and whānau violence is a scourge on New Zealand society and it infiltrates every sector, every strata of society.  Police, women’s refuges and coal face workers struggle with the reality of a nation that is violent in thought, word and deed.  

In 2016, Police attended about 105,000 family violence incidents and another estimated eighty percent are not reported.  Children are present at about eighty percent of family violence incidents between adults and there were 11,286 substantiated findings of child abuse in the twelve months ending in March 2017.  Researches and politicians struggle to increase public awareness of the depth of the problem and how serious it is.  The problem of sibling violence is an area of family violence that is under-researched and potentially one of the most pervasive forms.

In 2007 New Zealand repealed Section 59 of the Crimes Act which removed the defense of reasonable force for parental control.  The Children’s Commissioner in 2006 Dr Cindy Kiro, speaking on the Bill, posited that the change will help to move “the parenting norm away from negative discipline,” and that children should “grow up in safe and secure environments, free from all forms of violence.[1]  This submission proposes that defining sibling violence in the Family and Whānau Violence Legislation Bill 2017 will begin the discussion needed to raise awareness of the problem and reduce its occurrence.

Interfamilial violence is all forms of abuse between family members, other than intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect.  It includes abuse of aged people by those with whom they have a trust relationship with, violence by a child against parents and by parents against an adult child and violence among siblings[2].

Family violence is a broad range of controlling behaviours, usually of a physical, sexual and/or psychological nature and that can involve fear, intimidation and emotional control.  It occurs within various close interpersonal relationships, such as between partners, parents and children, siblings, and in other relationships where significant others are not part of the physical household but are part of the family and/or are fulfilling the function of family[3].

Family and whānau violence takes many forms and covers a range of behaviours involving fear, intimidation, emotional abuse, of a physical or sexual nature.  New Zealand is working on many fronts to address endemic family and whānau violence and bullying at school.  The former Children’s Commissioner, Laurie O’Reilly wrote that;

‘Bullying is violence and it ought to be so labelled. The practice of referring to such behaviour as bullying has the inherent danger of trivialising the behaviour.  In future it would be appropriate to call it what it is – violence”.

In 1996 the Office of the Commissioner for Children published research of children’s experience of violence that it is most commonly experienced at the hands of other children, both at home and at school (Maxwell. G. & Carroll-Lind. J. 1996).  Violence and bullying at school is recognised and is being addressed.  Adult’s violence towards children is also a recognised issue and changes to the law, with the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961, have contributed to greater awareness that violence towards children will not be tolerated.  Between siblings however violence and bullying have been regarded as a normal part of childhood and there is a small but growing body of evidence and recognition of the harmful effects (Leivore, Mayhew, Mossman, 2007).

On some occasions, victims of family and whānau violence may not be recognised, or their plight misinterpreted and minimised.  The Family Violence Death Review Committee wants to transform how New Zealanders think about family and whānau violence and calls for changes to the response, intervention, prevention and punishment and broader public policy decisions for family and whānau violence.  The New Zealand Law Commission’s report, Understanding Family Violence (2016), explains that there are outdated and unhelpful misconceptions of family violence and the overall effects of the violence on the victims.

The emotional, physical and sexual aggression from a sibling is most often minimised, although the studies that have been done show there is consistently high levels of violence among siblings.  A 2004 briefing by the Ministry of Social Development to the incoming Families Commissioner of the newly established Families Commission defines sibling abuse as a key issue that is becoming a subject of serious consideration but laments that there has been little systemic research into the violence and abuse between siblings.

Some parents see violence between their children as a way for children to learn to defend themselves, and due to historical acceptance of sibling violence as normal behaviour, awareness of sibling violence as serious family violence is low (Roscoe, Goodwin, & Kennedy, 1987).  The way a child is treated by their siblings is influential in their upbringing and sibling violence is the most common form of family violence. 

A 1987 study by Roscoe et al in North America of close-spaced siblings showed 88% of the males and 94% of the females said they were victims of sibling violence in the prior twelve months and 85% of the males and 96% of the females admitted they were perpetrators. There was no discussion in this study of any power imbalances of age, size or health but it shows sibling violence is prominent. 

A 1996 study by Maxwell and Carroll-Lind of 259 years seven and eight school children in New Zealand showed that in the prior nine months, 49% had been punched, kicked, beaten or hit, and 70% threatened, frightened or called names by other children.  Buckley (2001) says that bullying affects a great number of children in many countries and there is evidence that the incidence of bullying is higher in New Zealand and this also suggests sibling violence is likely similar.

The Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) study, undertaken by Ministry of Education in 2015, surveyed New Zealand students in age ranges from years five to nine found twenty six percent of students experienced regular bullying and this is higher than the nineteen percent reported by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) participant countries.  School bullying results in victims feeling isolated and withdrawn and they have less of a sense of belonging at school and lower expectations of remaining in education.  They have higher levels of anxiety and lower achievements and this remains, even after factoring in socio-economic status, but like family and whānau violence bullying is more predominant among students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

The PISA report found that students who have more parental support are less likely to be bullied at school and students who felt less supported by their parents experienced more bullying at school and this suggests that students who feel more supported at home may be more resilient to others’ behaviours.  It could also be deduced that there may be a correlation between being a victim of sibling violence and being a victim of school bullying.
It is well reported that educational outcomes are affected by influences of home and community and similar to school bullying, family and whānau violence contributes to negative educational and social achievements.

A sign of the social and mental wellbeing of a population is the suicide rate of a nation.  New Zealand has the second highest suicide rate in the OECD and is reported by UNICEF to have the highest 15-19 year old suicide rate in the world.  Otago University academic Sue Gagshaw sites New Zealand’s high levels of child abuse as a contributing factor and the current Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says that the bullying statistics are deeply shameful for the country and that;

"Taking the figures at face value, perhaps there are echoes there of our high rates of domestic family and inter-personal violence that very often take place in the context of families and in the presence of children.  That may be behaviour that's carried over into the playground and classroom”.  And that, “High rates of youth suicide might also be another face of the same statistics."

Family and whānau violence has devastating effects on children, and like all other forms of family and whānau violence, sibling violence can have on-going effects.  It creates emotional pathways to low self-esteem, depression, problems in interpersonal relationships, self-harm, continued victimisation and even as found by Jackson (1998), a predilection to commit violence within other relationships and potentially suicide.

Sibling violence causes great distress and there is evidence of immediate and long term harm with some research literature indicating the effects can be as harmful as abuse by an adult.  In the study Family violence and teenage dating trouble, Jackson (1998) found that boys who are violent towards their sisters often go on to be violent with non-family members.   

In the Beyond Zero Tolerance (2005) report for the Families Commission, sibling abuse (violence among siblings) is listed as a commonly recognised sub-group of violence in families, but goes on to advise these issues are not discussed in the report due to a dearth of information.  All studies point out that sibling violence is often normalised and overlooked and that sibling violence needs further investigation.

This submission recommended that in addition to clause 4(1)(a,b,c,d), of the Family and Whānau Violence Bill that a further clause (e) has a sibling relationship with the other person, is included to directly sanction and address sibling violence within families.  Defining sibling violence in this way will start the public discussion needed to raise awareness of the problem and measures can be put in place to reduce its occurrence.  New Zealand has some of the highest family violence and child abuse rates among comparable countries and tops the lists of suicide and bullying statistics too.  Family and whānau violence is a scourge on New Zealand society and its effects pervade all of society and raising awareness that sibling violence is part of family and whānau violence too is another step toward ensuring that all New Zealand children grow up in safe and secure environments, free from all forms of violence.


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[1] New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse. (2006). Children’s commissioner calls for repeal of section 59. Downloaded from
[2] Law Commission. (2016). Understanding family violence: reforming the criminal law relating to homicide. Report 139. Wellington. P. 19.
[3] Law Commission. (2016). Understanding family violence: reforming the criminal law relating to homicide. Report 139. Wellington. P. 19.




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