Ethnic identity and intimate partner violence in a New Zealand birth cohort.

AuthorMarie, Dannette


Intimate partner violence (IPV) is an issue of growing concern in New Zealand, with particular concerns being raised about the over-representation of Maori in surveys of IPV. The present study examined the associations between ethnic identity and IPV in a longitudinal birth cohort of individuals born in Christchurch in 1977. Those participants of Maori identity reported higher rates of both IPV victimisation and perpetration than non-Maori, as well as higher rates of injury related to IPV. Control for a range of socio-economic and family functioning factors reduced the magnitude of the associations between ethnic identity and IPV victimisation, perpetration and injury, but the associations remained substantial. It was concluded that higher rates of IPV among Maori were not explained by cultural factors, and were largely explained by ethnic differences in exposure to socio-economic factors and exposure to family problems in childhood.


Intimate partner violence (IPV) has been described as a major public health threat, a significant social issue and, due to its prevalence, one of the world's most pressing human rights problems (Krug et al. 2002, Tolan et al. 2006). Within New Zealand legislation the Domestic Violence Act 1995 considers IPV to constitute a category of family violence. According to the Act, IPV involves an individual committing violence against another person with whom that individual is or has been in a domestic relationship.

There has in recent years been growing concerns about the issue of IPV in New Zealand. A good deal of this concern has emerged from the policy sector and from advocacy groups raising awareness of the adverse consequences of any form of violence to individuals, communities and the nation more broadly (Fanslow and Robinson 2004, Ministry of Justice 2004). In view of these concerns, the New Zealand government has developed a number of strategies that directly or indirectly address IPV, such as Te Rito: New Zealand Family Violence Prevention Strategy (Ministry of Social Development 2002), and has made substantial investment into anti-violence campaigns and initiatives (Fanslow 2005).

Arguably, one of the more concerning features of IPV in New Zealand involves the claim that Maori are over-represented as both victims and perpetrators of IPV. Currently, prevalence rates for IPV aggregated by ethnic grouping are not known for the New Zealand population. However, provisional data drawn from a range of sources provide some indication of the magnitude of IPV being experienced by Maori.

Three national crime surveys have been undertaken in New Zealand. The objective of this survey series was to ascertain the level of victimisation occurring in New Zealand, as the vast majority of incidents involving IPV are not reported to the New Zealand Police (New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse 2007). The first survey was undertaken in 1996, and the subsequent studies conducted in 2001 and 2006 each involved refinements to the respective survey's methodological design. However, independent of these changes, a clear and consistent pattern of Maori being over-represented in IPV emerges.

In the first study, the lifetime prevalence rate of Maori women experiencing IPV was 26.9% compared with a rate of 14.6% for New Zealand European women (Young et al. 1997). The rates were 11.9% for Maori males and 6.8% for New Zealand European males. The second national crime survey indicated that 49.3% of Maori women and 22.2% of New Zealand European women had experienced IPV (Morris et al. 2003). The lifetime prevalence rate for Maori males was 27.5% and the corresponding rate for New Zealand European males 18.4%. The most recent contribution to this series used the term "confrontational offences" (mainly assaults and threats) and differentiated types of offending by the degree of intimacy between the respondent and offender (Mayhew and Reilly 2007). The results indicate an uneven distribution of vulnerability between ethnic groups, with Maori experiencing more than 50% higher than the average victimisation risk for offending by partners.

This pattern of Maori disproportionately represented in IPV is also observable from information derived from alternative sources. For example, although Maori make up only 15% of the New Zealand population, 50% of those sentenced for the offence "male assaults female" were Maori men (Doone 2000). In addition, it has been estimated that close to 50% of Women's Refuge clientele are Maori women and children (New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse 2007). Other research reporting specifically on ethnic group differences in exposure to IPV or related trauma appears to corroborate the finding that both Maori men and women are at an inordinate risk of experiencing IPV when compared to other sub-groups of the population classified by ethnicity (Kazantzis et al. 2000, Koziol-Mclain et al. 2004, Flett et al. 2004, Hirini et al. 2005, Koziol-Mclain et al. 2007, Lievore et al. 2007).

Brought together, these different sources of information provide a disconcerting image of the extent of IPV involving Maori, which has led the taskforce established to coordinate IPV interventions for Maori to describe the situation as an epidemic (Kruger et al. 2004). A significant omission in research into ethnic differences in IPV has been lack of consideration of the role of socio-economic factors to influence this association. In particular, it has been well documented that rates of IPV tend to be higher among couples exposed to various forms of economic adversity and hardship (Feldman and Ridley 1995, Bassuk and Dawson 2006). It has also been well documented that Maori are at greater risk of socio-economic disadvantage (Statistics New Zealand 2002, Ministry of Social Development 2007). Thus one explanation for the higher rate of IPV among Maori emerges from what is more generally referred to as social deprivation theory. Put briefly, because Maori have greater exposure to socio-economic adversity, this in turn places them at greater risk of involvement in IPV. From this perspective, the social deprivation hypothesis implies that Maori are no more likely to be involved in IPV than non-Maori of a similar socio-economic background.

A second possible explanation is that differences between ethnic groups may arise from an inter-generational process in which Maori have greater exposure to violence in childhood than non-Maori, which in turn may lead to higher involvement in IPV in later life. This hypothesis, which draws from social learning theory, is supported by consistent evidence suggesting that Maori have higher exposure to all forms of violence in childhood, including physical child abuse, childhood sexual abuse, and exposure to inter-parental violence (Fergusson 2003, Ministry of Social Development 2004, Ministry of Social Development 2007). It could be proposed that independently of socio-economic disadvantage, the higher exposure of Maori to childhood violence may explain the higher rate of IPV among Maori.

A further explanation for the over-representation of Maori in IPV involves a systemic theory of colonisation, which emphasises external determinants affecting collective wellbeing and individual cultural identity (Jackson 1987). This view proposes that Maori social organisation has been severely affected by historical and structural factors, along with Eurocentric beliefs, values and practices being imposed upon their culture. As a consequence, it is contended that many Maori have become estranged from traditional cultural domains and concepts, which over time has resulted in a diminished or compromised cultural identity (Durie 1995, Balzer et al. 1997, Cram et al. 2002, Pihama et al. 2003). The fundamental assumption underpinning this perspective is that Maori involvement in IPV is inextricably linked to loss of attachment to traditional cultural domains and a weakened cultural identity. Reinforcing the "whanau ora" concept, whereby the sanctity of the family is viewed as paramount, and strengthening Maori cultural identity have therefore become key intervention factors in the field of IPV and other related areas where Maori are over-represented (Maynard et al. 1999, Kruger et al. 2004).

Against this general background, this study examines the relationships between ethnicity and IPV in a cohort of over 800 young adults studied as part of the Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS). The aims of this study were to:

* document patterns of IPV victimisation and perpetration among study participants

* examine the relationship between ethnic status (Maori/non-Maori) and patterns of IPV victimisation and perpetration

* explore the extent to which any ethnic differences in IPV victimisation and perpetration could be explained by socio-economic factors, childhood factors and variations in cultural identity.

More generally, the aims of the paper are to examine statistical links between ethnic status and IPV, and to evaluate various explanations of these links.


The data were gathered during the course of CHDS. In this study a birth cohort of 1,265 children (635 males, 630 females) born in the Christchurch (New Zealand) urban region in mid-1977 has been studied at birth, four months, one year and annually to age 16 years, and again at ages 18, 21 and 25 years. Information from a variety of sources has been used, including parental interviews; teacher reports; self-reports; psychometric assessments; and medical and other record data (Fergusson and Horwood 2001, Fergusson et al. 1989). The analyses reported here were based on the 804 study participants (64% of the original sample) for whom information was available concerning ethnic identity at age 21, and who reported having been in a partnership of over one month's duration during ages 24-25. All study information was collected on the basis of signed and informed consent from study participants.


To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT