20 MARCH 2018


When Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister, New Zealand started to have a lot of reasons to become hopeful about making real progress on gender equality. A year beforehand, we had a Prime Minister who didn’t know what feminism was, and a Minister for Women who considered herself a feminist “most days” but not when she was “getting on and being busy”. Now we have a Prime Minister who publicly identifies as a feminist, without exception, defends women’s rights, and who is taking on the role of PM whilst also becoming a mother. In Julie-Anne Genter we have a “full time” feminist as Minister for Women, one who sees “getting on and being busy” as the Minister for Women as exactly what a feminist does.

Articles flooded newspapers all over the world, praising her accomplishment as the third female PM that New Zealand has elected. Given this, and New Zealand’s high rankings in international studies on equality, prosperity, and freedom, it can be easy to fall into a false sense of security about women’s equality. We were the first country to gain the right to vote, so surely that gave us a jump start over every other country to gain equality? Evidently not so, as progress has stalled in recent years. Just take a look at the Gender Pay Gap which stubbornly remains around 9.7%. Research by the Ministry for Women found that 80% of this is due to “unexplained” factors, like conscious and unconscious bias which impact negatively on women’s recruitment and pay advancement as well as differences in men and women’s choices and behaviours.

Whilst Ardern’s accomplishment should absolutely be celebrated, we cannot allow our euphoria to overshadow the fact that New Zealand has the worst rate of family and intimate-partner violence in the the developed world. And this is just based on the 20% of incidents that are actually reported; we’ve barely scratched the surface of the damage that this crime, overwhelmingly perpetrated against women, does to our communities and families. How equal, prosperous and free can our country truly be when one in three New Zealand women experience physical and/or sexual violence by their partner in their lifetime? Not to mention the drain this causes on our economy (estimated at between NZ$4.1 billion to $7 billion) and our justice system (2016 saw police attend over 100,000 domestic violence incidents).

What we need is government wide action to tackle the culture around domestic violence by actively changing women’s position in New Zealand. As Dr Ang Jury, the CEO of Women’s Refuge, says, “we know what it looks like, we know that it's bad but we don't make a hell of a lot of headway in addressing it.” The first thing that needs to change is the thought that it's okay to control women. Having more women visibly in positions of power goes some way to achieving this, but the effects are diminished when women in power are stereotyped into the narrow box of school mistress. Whilst antiquated attitudes of women’s roles in society continue to be allowed and perpetuated, women will continue to be victims of men using physical and sexual acts of aggression to control them. Unfortunately, dropping the Women’s portfolio from Cabinet was not a first step in this direction.

The Government needs to commit to changing attitudes around domestic violence as a crime. In a 2014 survey by the Ministry of Justice, 41% of female victims of ‘violent interpersonal offences’ considered the incident ‘wrong, but not a crime’ and 24% of female victims considered the incident to be ‘just something that happens’. Domestic violence is not and should not be something that happens in our culture, and if it does happen it is absolutely a crime. It is this kind of strong message that our Government should be sending in their first days of governing, rather than silence and unfulfilled promises.

The continual failure of successive governments to do something on this cannot be due to lack of awareness of the severity of harm. The tragic story of Sophie Elliott comes back to me every time I hear of another domestic violence case in the media; of how she was just about to start a promising career as an economist, or how her mother heard the murder happen through the door but was unable to get through in time. Ardern herself spoke out about this issue while in opposition, saying “we have the power to do something about this”.

Standing up to domestic violence should be one of the top priorities for every Government in New Zealand until it is eradicated. Labour’s plans to tackle domestic violence is admirable, including commitments to adequately fund crisis intervention and joining up government agencies and family violence services, but these were relatively far down in their election manifesto and plans to put these into motion were not mentioned in Ardern’s first 100 days in office. This is more than just community safety, which brings to mind such indiscretions as graffiti on park benches and parking offences. Domestic violence is not something which can be tidied up after the ‘really tough and important matters’ of government have been made. This is about men using physical and sexual acts of aggression towards women and children in their homes in order to control them, and governments continuing to fail to protect those women and children.

If Ardern does not use her position of power to defend the third of Kiwi women who will experience this in their lifetime, if another year goes by and another 525,000 incidents of family violence occur, then we should start to question our celebrations of her rise and what it will mean for women.


Avril Gillan is a volunteer policy and communications assistant at the Fawcett Society. She is passionate about making positive changes in the labour market so that everyone has access to it, and is treated fairly within it. She has worked in both the Government and NGO sector, and has an LLB/BCa(Economics) from Victoria University of Wellington.