In Foreign Parts: Cycle of abuse still haunts homes of Maori 'warriors'

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The Independent Online

As dusk cloaks the Auckland suburb of Otara, the Tradewinds Tavern – a squat green and white building with filthy windows – is packed with drinkers. Angry voices sound a crescendo and the door opens to disgorge two dishevelled men who collapse, fists flying, on the bottle-strewn pavement.

As dusk cloaks the Auckland suburb of Otara, the Tradewinds Tavern – a squat green and white building with filthy windows – is packed with drinkers. Angry voices sound a crescendo and the door opens to disgorge two dishevelled men who collapse, fists flying, on the bottle-strewn pavement.

Drunken brawls punctuate the rhythm of life in Otara, a bleak suburb that was the setting for the film Once Were Warriors, a brutal depiction of domestic violence in a Maori family. The film, released in 1994, had an extraordinary effect on New Zealand society, lifting the lid on a taboo subject and emboldening thousands of women to relate similar experiences.

Eight years on, the women's refuges are overflowing but the issue has been swept back under the carpet. Politicians are unwilling to grapple with the question of why so many Maori women and children in particular are battered and abused. Maori leaders who highlight the problem are condemned for painting the community in a poor light.

Last year, 44 per cent of women who used refuge services were Maori, as were nearly half of children. Welfare agencies say Maori children are five times more likely to be physically and sexually abused than their pakeha (white) counterparts. New Zealand was singled out as having an alarming incidence of domestic violence in a global human rights report this year by the American government, which said Maori children were disproportionately likely to suffer.

Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, until recently the chief executive of the National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges, said: "As a Maori woman, I sit at my desk and look at these figures with profound sadness. It's shameful."

New Zealanders have been shocked by a spate of horrific cases, including that of Lillybing Karaitiana-Matiaha, a toddler who died after being scalded, beaten and shaken by her aunt.

While many white New Zealanders are reluctant to instigate a debate for fear of being labelled racist or culturally insensitive, Ms Raukawa-Tait is one of the few high- profile Maoris prepared to speak out. Last year she criticised "gutless" community leaders and said Maori domestic violence was dragging New Zealand down. Subsequently, she claims, she was told to "pull her head in" by the Maori Affairs Minister, Parekura Horomia, and his assistant minister, Tariana Turia.

The two ministers are also alleged to have forced a senior public servant, the Children's Commissioner, Roger Clay, to excise statistics on child abuse from a report on a four-year-old Maori boy, James Whakaruru, who was tortured and beaten to death by his stepfather.

Maori family violence is attributed to the usual depressing mix of unemployment, welfare dependence, alcoholism and alienation. In terms of health, housing, jobs and all other social indicators, Maori people are considerably worse off than whites.

Ms Raukawa-Tait says many abused women in turn abuse their own children, in a destructive cycle that is difficult to break. The efforts of police and social workers are hampered by a traditional code of silence observed by the extended family.

Alan Duff, an author and commentator who wrote the book on which Once Were Warriors was based, believes Maori men lash out at the people around them because their "warrior" mentality has been debased and corrupted.

But Mr Duff, who is part Maori himself, also blames misguided tolerance by the white middle classes. "They make excuses for us and say it's all a result of colonisation," he said. "But we don't want to be judged by lower standards. We want the same playing field as everyone else."

As one newspaper commentator asked: "Why do Kiwis persist with the lie that this is such a great place to raise children and yet allow so many parents to batter their youngsters insensible?"

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