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Opinion: Māori Experiences of Sexual Abuse

For me, statistics don’t normally do the situation justice, they don’t usually show me the detail of human suffering. But what do you do when those human stories aren’t shared, aren’t discussed, and are shoved under the whāriki?

It’s strange to think reading one statistic when I was 16 changed my entire worldview so drastically. The stats were eye opening, with 2 in 3 Māori girls experiencing sexual abuse, twice the rate of Pākehā girls (Mayhew & Reilly, 2007). At first this was reassuring to me and I didn’t feel alone, but that didn’t last long. As I struggled through my own trauma, I was reminded in the back of my mind that this trauma is ripe throughout my community, my friends, my whānau, my ancestors. I would find myself in kapa haka, in social settings, at family dinners doing the math trying to figure out who is a survivor, who is like me.

So, my questions were no longer just why me, but why us? How did we get to this point? A year after I saw those stats I got my answer in a very unassuming way. Sitting in year 12 art history class, our attention turned to analysing the work of Paul Gaugin. At first, I marvelled at the portraits of the Tahitian women, their beauty and unflinching gaze. That didn’t last, my art history teacher took us through Gaugin’s history of exploiting and coercing Tahitian girls, that his art acted to humiliate and sexualise them. She explained how this was a further tool of colonialism to own both them and their land. I realised the power dynamic of sexual assault, it is not sex, but power, and for indigenous women it’s colonial oppression. The concept of raupatu, literally meaning hundreds of beatings, is a poignant way of explaining collective Māori thoughts of colonialism. Raupatu, is not just a reflection on the trauma of the past, of our ancestors being displaced, but also our continued trauma as land is still taken, still claimed, still destroyed and problems like sexual violence grow around that.

It’s key to understand that sexual violence was never tolerated and not typical in Te Ao Māori. Colonialism introduced many things and amongst that was western ideas of heteronormative families and strict identities of masculinity and femininity. The toxicity of those structures was key in breaking down community support and accountability, no longer were things dealt with as a collective, and a culture of hiding and shaming was perpetuated inside the new nuclear Māori family home. It’s a common statement that violence breeds violence, untreated trauma is likely to continue and transfer. That is even more likely in Māori who were and are displaced, ignored, discriminated against, and killed by the state who see Māori existence as a threat to their sovereignty.

These sexual violence rates should be seen as a symptom of this state sanctioned attack on Māoridom. Although there has been a revival amongst Māori and a reconnection to aspects of our culture and customs, that does not shake the centuries of cultural shift. Māori women have been made to be resilient, to be steadfast and quiet about our issues. We need to be vocal, and we are beginning to be. We need more stories like that of the mana wāhine speaking up at their marae, determined to see abusers removed from their places of honour and power. When women and girls are empowered in truly safe spaces, healing and behavioural changes can be made. These are just some of my thoughts, I’ll leave you with one more,

“Take care of our children. Take care of what they hear, take care of what they see, take care of what they feel. For how the children grow, so will the shape of Aotearoa” – Dame Whina Cooper.

This piece was originally published by Thursdays in Black - Otago.


Mayhew, P. & Reilly, J. (2007). New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey 2006 – Key findings report. Retrieved from


He Kupu Mō Te Kaituhi:

Michaela Waite-Harvey

Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga | She / Her

Studies Law and Classics at the University of Otago.

Thursdays in Black

Thursdays in Black is a student-led movement working towards a world free from sexual violence. We believe sexual violence is a significant problem on tertiary campuses, but we believe that a different reality is possible. We encourage people to wear black on Thursdays to show support and solidarity with survivors of sexual violence.


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