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New Zealand must tackle ‘epidemic’ of sexual violence, says children’s commissioner

New Zealand must tackle ‘epidemic’ of sexual violence, says children’s commissioner

New Zealand’s children’s commissioner has called for urgent action to tackle an “epidemic” in sexual violence in the country, after a survey of more than 700 girls at a school in Christchurch found more than 20 alleged they had been raped, and half said they had been sexually harassed.

Andrew Becroft said in a statement on Monday the results of the survey were “incredibly disturbing”, adding: “Sadly, this survey is the latest in a growing body of evidence about the extent of sexual violence against girls and LGBTQ+ teenagers in Aotearoa. It’s time for New Zealand to admit this is an epidemic, and it needs a national epidemic-level response.”

He spoke after research commissioned by Christchurch girls’ high school uncovered allegations suggesting a culture of abuse outside school, with more than half of the students reported being sexually harassed.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said that the alleged harassment and assault was a problem “for all of us”.

“We need to make sure we’re supporting those in the education environment – these are really hard issues to deal with and I don’t think any education provider should feel left alone in dealing with some of these issues,” Ardern said.

The school’s head girl, Amiria Tikao, said in a statement on the survey results: “I am sorry to say this is not a surprise. I think adults are likely to find it more shocking than we do.”

The aim of the research was to document students’ experiences of harassment, and asked participants to describe their worst experiences. Twenty students described being raped by individuals or groups. Other participants “described many incidents of physical and sexual abuse”, the survey found, with many of the girls alleging multiple instances. Since the start of 2021, 381 participants reported 2,677 incidents of sexual harassment, or seven per student.

The vast majority of perpetrators (91%) were alleged to be men, and researchers noted that as well as girls being harassed by peers their own age, harassment from adult men made up almost half of their reports. “Many incidents involved young males at social events, on the streets or on public transport. Egged on by friends, many comments were extreme and terrifying. Almost the same number of events were caused by older males on the streets, either alone or in groups, often in cars. Older males also harassed students on public transport and in taxis and Ubers.”

In March, students from the Christchurch girls’ high school made headlines when they led a march to Christchurch boys’ high school, protesting against sexual harassment and bullying of LGBTQ+ youth. The crowd of nearly 100 girls was turned away by police and principals before it could reach the school.

“What we need to do now is work with our students to support them to manage issues they may be dealing with and empower everyone, everywhere to call this kind of behaviour out,” Tikao said.

The survey found fewer than 10% of girls who had experienced sexual harassment, assault or rape received any help or support.

Researcher Liz Gordon, who carried out the survey, said that young women’s experiences of rape, sexual assault and harassment were changing their behaviour, including “dressing in baggy clothing to hide their bodies, travelling different routes to avoid harassers and changing their social lives to reduce potential interactions with harassers”.

The school’s principal said the results showed the girls had “normalised this totally unacceptable behaviour”. In a letter to parents, Christine O’Neill said the report “makes concerning reading”. She said the school was working with local police to enable students to make reports and had counsellors available. “The most important piece of work is to lift the code of silence where young women and our rainbow community suffer in shame and guilt which is not theirs to bear,” O’Neill wrote.

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