In recent weeks, the Government has come out in support of a push for strangulation to become its own offence. One of a number of recommendations by an independent committee into family violence deaths, the Family Violence Death Review Committee (FVDRC), it would see what’s called “non-fatal strangulation” become a separate offence under the Crimes Act 1961.
In the context of domestic violence, non-fatal strangulation is currently dealt with under s 194 of the Crimes Act, what’s commonly known as “male assaults female”. Essentially, the FVDRC argues that the current way in which we deal with non-fatal strangulation fails to recognise the both physical and psychological damage caused, and its seriousness as an offence. Further, as Catriona McLennan wrote this week, non-fatal strangulation serves as a “red flag for future serious abuse and possible death of the victim”. The futility of the move, however, was raised by Warren Brookbanks, who rightly questions the deterrent effect of such a change.
The issue of violence against women has become, for this government, a major black mark against its name. On one side, Collins and the National government are pushing the line that crime has reduced under National (although how much of that is attributable to National’s leadership as distinct from increased use of warnings by the Police, dodgy stats, and global trends is highly questionable).
On the other hand, the New Zealand public has become increasingly aware of the damning stats around sexual and domestic violence. Off the back of the shameful Malaysian diplomat saga, National is under pressure to look like it’s serious about tackling violence against women.
So it’s no surprise to see Collins come out in support of the FVDRC recommendation. For the average voter unfamiliar with how the courts operate, Collins will get points for “making strangling a woman a crime”. National will be in no hurry to correct voters that strangling a woman is, of course, already an offence, and a judge has the ability to take into account the serious nature of the offence in weighing up the factors at play in the offending. Collins will bandy this around as an example of how this government is serious about tackling violence against women; an instance of National getting tough on crime.
On the other side of the coin, we have the Minister of Justice mocking another politician’s attempt to address New Zealand’s culture of violence against women – from a boxing match, no less. We have the Prime Minister refusing to apologise for the way his Minister handled an alleged rape claim against a diplomat. We have Collins’ self-described close personal friend and the man she claims to be this country’s best media source, Whale Oil, questioning whether Billingsley “made it all up” because she once went to a Rape Crisis fundraiser. It’s against this backdrop that we must assess the Government’s commitment to truly address violence against women.
So far, that commitment can, at best, be described as superficial tinkering. Support for policies such as the non-fatal strangulation offence relies on the flawed and widely disproved assumption of general deterrence: the idea that every man about to offend against a women is making a rational choice, weighing up his actions against the possible consequences. In almost all offending, this is all but a myth, but even more so where the offender does not even view his actions as criminal, worthy of sanction, or unlikely to be reported. A man does not stop and contemplate strangling his partner because the crime is separately listed under the Crimes Act 1961 and subject to a harsh penalty; he stops because he has been socialised to value and care for his partner.
If we are to address violence against women, we have to accept that surface level, minor change is not where the solutions lie. Gendered violence runs through our country’s veins. It is pervasive, and the issue is vast.
When dealing with an issue of deeply-rooted culture, seemingly small and insignificant actions are where the change starts. Key standing up and saying “I am sorry for the actions of my government and I apologise to Tania Billingsley” would go further to addressing the issue of gendered violence than a change in the Crimes Act. Collins tweeting “Cunliffe may have been clumsy in his wording but he’s right: this is an issue all men need to take ownership of – whether or not they are violent against women” would have sent a loud, resounding message to New Zealanders that this government is committed to tackling violence against women. Collins, as Minister of Justice, coming out against Whale Oil and saying “I do not support Cameron Slater’s comments on Tania Billingsley and we need to believe women” would’ve shown a true commitment to challenging rape culture and violence against women.
The fact the issue is so pervasive and requires such deep social change does not, of course, preclude a government from taking more immediate, legislative actions. But we should not be fooled into thinking that National’s willingness to tinker is backed up by the deeper, more genuine commitment to addressing the systemic issues that truly underpin violence against women. What we have seen in recent weeks is the complete opposite.
We need to stop talking about violence against women as if it can be “solved” by tweaking an Act or giving the maximum penalty to an offender. The way men offend against women is inextricably tied to the way society perceives women, and when we simply increase the penalty for an offence, we’re not targeting the root of the problem. When the major issue in domestic violence cases is reporting, it may even have the opposite effect, making women more unlikely to report the offending for fear of the impact that could have on their partner and family.
The solution here does not lie in legislative change alone. It lies in the way each individual conducts themselves. And that’s exactly where this government needs to start.