Sexual abuse in Aotearoa – a place for social work intervention?

by Alex

*Trigger warning – discussion of sexual abuse

Rape culture is a matter of public concern that affects many people no matter their gender, sexual preference or skin colour. The implications that it can have on an individual’s life is enormous, which goes hand in hand with the enormous problem we have here in Aotearoa.

  • One out of three girls experience sexual abuse before she turns 16.
  • One of every five women will experience some form of sexual abuse.
  • 90% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

One key group that is left out of these statistics is the LGBTQI community. This is a common occurrence as the heteronormative narrative dominates the discourse of sexual abuse. The LBGTQI community are often left out of the conversation through education, resources, research and policy. This has led to a large disproportion of the LBGTQI community having the most alarming rates of sexual abuse

Social workers play a crucial role in responding to the issue of sexual abuse. On a micro level they offer services such as Women’s Refuge and HELP, a support network for survivors. On a macro level social workers advocate for change in rape culture through education and awareness in our communities; for example RPE (Rape Prevention Education). Internationally there are many programs that support survivors of sexual assault. Yet when it comes to disclosure and addressing the perpetrator, voices are silenced.

For example, in 2015 prime minister John Key suggested that MPs were backing the rapists when discussing concerns about New Zealand citizens in an Australian detention on Christmas Island. Many members of parliament left the chamber whom felt offence, yet the prime minister was not held accountable for an apology. In America, just one example is the Stanford Rapist’s light sentence, in which the survivor wrote an open letter  of the impact the assault had on her. These are just a couple of examples of why people are afraid to speak out, as they are often blamed and not listened to. This is further highlighted through the government’s recent rejection  of calls for an inquiry into past state care abuse, once gain the perpetrator walks free.

Social workers are seen to be change agents that understand the complexity of people’s lives. This could be as basic as making sure the person is having their everyday needs met such as food, through to understanding how wider social structures can work against a marginalised group. Another large aspect of being a social worker is understanding the power imbalances that occur through relationships. When it comes to the discussion of sexual assault this power imbalance becomes clear, especially within the patriarchal world we live in.

As a social work student I am met with statements that suggest it takes a certain person to be in this line of work. Yet like most social issues, everyone is able to play a part in creating change. When it comes to the issue of sexual abuse, whether you’re the friend, the neighbour, the flatmate, the stranger, everyone should be held responsible.

In the words of Emma Watson “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

To understand how social workers can support in healing these experiences listen to podcast linked below:


BuzzFeed (2017). Here’s The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read To Her Attacker. Retrieved 2 June 2017, from

New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse. (2017). New resource and new project for sexuality and gender diverse communities. Retrieved 2 June 2017, from

HELP. (2017). Retrieved 2 June 2017, from

Social Justice Solutions (2017). #WeStandUp: Social Workers for Survivors of Sexual Assault. Social Justice Solutions. Retrieved 2 June 2017, from


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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