When we listen and teach, violent men learn they matter

Lois Hewetson, Clinical Leader with SVS Living Safe in Nelson
Lois Hewetson, Clinical Leader with SVS Living Safe in Nelson

OPINION: During a topic last month on domestic violence, The AM Show host Duncan Garner took some flak for telling his audience not to ridicule men or else you "set off the powder keg" because "some of them don't do humiliation very well." His co-host Amanda Gillies rightly corrected him, saying there is no excuse for abuse of any kind.


Gillies then turned to a guest from SHINE, an organisation that provides services to victims of domestic abuse, and asked: "What do men say when you ask them why they act violently?" The guest said she doesn't ask that question.


Why not? They are fathers, brothers, sons, members of our communities who need to (and maybe want to) change how they behave. Why shouldn't we ask?


New Zealand has a serious problem with domestic violence. One in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime. Nearly 80 percent of domestic violence incidents are not reported to Police and 76 percent of recorded assaults against females are committed by a family member.


Something has to change. One approach to consider is paying more attention to perpetrators of this violence to understand why they act as they do and teach them a better way. We can't ignore their actions and we must hold them to account, but our current approach is overly punitive. We'll never break the cycle of violence if punishment is the primary focus.


SVS Living Safe has for years provided education and support to male perpetrators of violence. Our method is anything but punitive; we call it whānau centred. We work with the entire whānau – including the perpetrator of the harm who also needs help – to develop workable ways of living safely and preventing future family violence. SVS Living Safe believes a whānau centred approach gives everyone in the family a better chance of achieving real, lifelong change.


It is exactly the approach Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis' new Hōkai Rangi strategy is taking to reduce the disproportionate recidivism and imprisonment rates of Māori. Hōkai Rangi focuses on the wellbeing of people who come into the system as well as that of their whānau. Care, empathy and empowerment will be the priorities. Staff will be expected to treat prisoners with respect and uphold their mana. Family will remain in touch and involved. The men will be treated like they are worthy of dignity and care.


Treating someone who commits violence with dignity includes understanding who they are as a person. When they walk into SVS Living Safe's door, we start by talking and listening to them, asking questions about them and their lives. Talking establishes trust and once they trust, they really start to open up.


Last year we helped a man named Carl for 23 weeks. Carl is not an extreme case, but a good example of what we often see. At the age of 40, he was mandated by NZ Police to undertake one of our programmes following an incident (which followed a long history) with his ex-partner where he was extremely verbally violent.


Carl attended one-on-one counselling with a clinician. After many weeks of talking and building trust, Carl opened up and described an unhealthy childhood with traumatic experiences that our clinician helped him see were at the root of his violent tendencies.


Over those weeks, Carl came to understand why he behaved how he did and he was taught communications techniques, time-out strategies, and other tips to identify when and how his anger is triggered. He uses these tactics every day to be a better person.


Carl is only one example of hundreds that have taught me to know with certainty that men aren't born violent. They don't decide one day to start hitting their partner or their child. In 20 years as a clinician, I know these men learn to choose violence – and they can be taught to choose non-violence. Asking why they are violent often uncovers their own trauma.


November 25 is United Nations International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women and we follow the White Ribbon campaign that urges men to be involved this effort. Please take time to reflect on the men in our communities who are working to be better. They deserve our respect and recognition and encouragement. They need to know they matter because once they understand this, they will know what respect really means.


Change does happen. Amanda Gillies also said last month, "The thing that does give me hope is I have interviewed couples before who have been in violent relationships … but they have been able to turn it around and get into a loving [relationship] – so it can happen, people who are in violent relationships, yeah, there is hope there. They just need to reach out and get that help."


She's absolutely right, we've seen it first-hand. People who are members of a whānau will always be members of that whānau – whether living together or not. Let's encourage them to choose to live violence-free.


Lois Hewetson has 20 years' experience in the family and sexual violence field. She is currently the Clinical Leader with SVS Living Safe in Nelson, an accredited provider of professional family violence services in Nelson Tasman for more than 35 years.

RISE delivers services into Nelson, Motueka, Golden Bay, Marlborough, Kaikoura, and the West Coast.
Please contact our Nelson office for information.

Nelson Office

Level 3, 295 Trafalgar Street

Phone: 03 548 3850

Txt: 027 548 3850


Motueka Office

15b Courtney Street

(site of Jack Inglis Care Home)

Phone: 03 528 8976