In Search of a symbol

Tuesday 28 August 2007, 5:34PM
By Pita Sharples


I was interested in yesterday’s business news, to see baby products manufacturer, Johnson and Johnson, taking on the Red Cross for the inappropriate use of their symbol – the red cross that around the world is associated with humanitarian aid.

The shock, horror of the story, appeared to be that because the red cross was synonymous with emergency crisis relief, it lent a particular authority and credibility to any products that wore its crest.

And it made me think about the emergency crisis we are facing in this country at this moment; and the vast array of associations we are confronted with about what to do, and how to apply relief.

Of course the red cross is but one of a sea of symbols that we are familiar with. We have the pink ribbon as the international symbol of breast cancer awareness; or we wear a red ribbon to pay tribute to the millions of people living with HIV and AIDS and the search for a cure.

There’s the yellow ribbon for suicide prevention, the green ribbon to mark ever-escalating levels of student debt, and of course the white ribbon we wear to demonstrate our determination to eliminate violence from our lives.

The white ribbon is a tradition that stems from the men’s movement in Canada and has been adopted by the United Nations as a marker for the elimination of violence against women.

And it makes me think of our own Maori symbols of peace, of strength, of solidarity; and particularly of course, the raukura, the white feather.

The raukura represents the violence of land alienation and confiscation, and yet also the strength of passive resistance. It is associated with the origins of Parihaka; the leadership of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi and their inspirational commitment to peace and to upholding the rights of justice.

It is also a symbol that has been associated with the Kingitanga movement – custom has it that at the coronation of the King a white feather was presented as an emblem of purity and truth.

And in a watercolour of Te Rauparaha in 1843, he was shown wearing the feather of the toroa in his left ear, and a white feather on his head.

In fact, so universal is the concept of the raukura that the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa adopted the white feather as their symbol to represent the Decade to overcome violence.

I believe symbols such as our raukura, or the white ribbon, are important in inspiring hope, and reminding us that through collective action, through the wisdom of our tikanga and our kaupapa, we have all the resources we need to restore our whanau to their full potential.

So how does the Newmarket Rotary Club fit in to my search for a symbol? And believe me, I did not come here today with a corporate sponsorship application in hand, to distribute nationwide symbols on gold, silver and bronze badges to combat child abuse.

But I did come here, inspired by your desire for solutions and strategies; and knowing that the way we think about child abuse is very much part of that solution.

Symbols, word associations, use of language, the effort we put into naming and identifying issues are all important in any campaign.

In recent weeks, I have been amazed at the wealth of ideas and projects that have come forward, that can help us move forward. One that we in the Maori Party have found particularly useful is Project Mauriora which is based on three simple steps:

dispelling the notion that violence is normal and acceptable

2. teaching transformative practices based on Maori cultural imperatives that provide alternatives to violence; and

3. Removing opportunities for violence to be practised through education for the empowerment and liberation of whanau, hapu and iwi.

I want to apply these three steps, towards helping provide some ideas about how we can all work together to address child violence, child murder, child slaughter, child homicide in Aotearoa.

Step One: dispel the notion that violence is normal and acceptable

My use of language is deliberate. We need to wake up in New Zealand to the catastrophic cost of human life; the assassination of hope; the slaughter of innocent lives.

It appears that every time the label ‘child-abuse’ is raised in New Zealand, a whole range of associations are attached:

It’s a Maori problem

abuse is just another variable in the continuum of neglect / mistreatment / punishment meted out to children;

the perils of stranger danger are played out with child abuse.

The reality is, of course, that every community contains children who have experienced the devastation of violence; and the majority of child abuse events occur within families.

And in my mind the murder of one child is one too many – the numbers, the names, the circumstances are all horrendous, and I can not see any point in continuing to repeat and promote these stories – my focus is on prevention.

One only needs to think of the names and faces and events that have captured the media attention this year. They have been treated as isolated outcasts, their names become etched on everyone’s lips, and the individuals vilified for their violence. But what does that do for a nation, to continue to blame and shame?

In my search for answers around child killings, I read a recent paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal - Infantile subdural haemotoma in Auckland 1988-1998; - one of the largest published papers of what is known as ‘shaken baby syndrome’.

The paper written by Patrick Kelly, Clinical Director of the Child Abuse Assessment Unit at Starship; and Ian Hayes from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, listed the many risk factors for child abuse as follows:

“the age and educational status of the mother; the number of children in the household; the presence or absence of the biological father; poverty; domestic violence; mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse”.

And if you’re wondering if there’s something missing from that list, the authors also referred to a recent study from America which concluded: “there is no predictive effect of ethnicity”.

So the first step we can all take, is to start looking seriously at the way we talk, the looks of intimidation, the actions of violence – and name it as such.

To stop pointing the finger of blame at someone else out there, and make it a finger that turns back on us all.

It means that when we catch our kids playing with toy guns, or play wrestling, we think about it and the message it promotes.

It means we advocate for effective education and strategies to flow from the Section 59 reform of the Crimes Act made earlier this year.

It may mean we think twice before using some expressions even with one another – this is all part of the de-programming that we take on, to restore to us ways of being that are free from abuse.

Step two: Teaching Transformative practices

The second factor is looking to the strength of our traditions to rebuild new ways of relating to each other – based on our old ways of being.

For Maori, the infinite possibilities inherent in whakapapa, tikanga, wairua, mana and mauri provide us with concepts that can lead us to mana-enhancing behaviours.

We need to involve everyone in taking collective responsibility for changing this mind set which somehow, peculiarly, isolates child abuse off to be some one else’s problem; behind someone else’s front door; not our business.

It is absolutely our business to take responsibility, ownership and collective courage in making the difference; and to treat each other in ways which reflect mutual respect; manaakitanga.

My belief is also that if we were able to restore and recognise the wealth of experience available through grandparents, siblings, aunties, uncles in helping to impart the duties, responsibilities and obligations that exist within whanau, we would be able to once again strengthen the whanau to cope with all adversity.

These are the old ways I refer to – old ways which no doubt many of you also call on in your most important grand-parenting or parenting roles.

Literally layers of generations are able to be drawn on to ‘parent’ the child. One of the incredible gifts that whakapapa provides us with, is the wide range of choices which genealogies offer.

These experiences can be used as resources for resilience – building the capacity of the whanau to determine their own solutions, through the practices that are in their own history.

And in looking at the way in which Rotary Newmarket has so generously committed towards growing talent and investing in our young; I wonder if there is some potential here for District 9920 to be a mover and shaker in leading transformation for families from sites of danger to sites of wellness.

I want to really commend this club, for the amazing vision you have had in exploring the potential of the young people of Aotearoa.

I have picked up along the way, investments you have made in children and teenagers within Central and Eastern Auckland through the pioneering initiatives of the ‘new generations committee’ including:

Circus Quirkus shows which enable disadvantaged children to be entertained by clowns, jugglers and performers;

Support for the James Family Trust which aids youth from violent backgrounds or who struggle with problems such as substance abuse; or for the Life Education Trust

Rotary Youth Leadership Award

The gifted kids programme

StarJam Rocks in which young people with disabilities hit the stage.

One of the things that impresses me most about the work that you do, is that it demonstrates what we might call, walking the talk, putting your beliefs into action.

And I think particularly of the event you sponsored two months ago, in which 100 teams from 54 secondary schools in the upper North Island took part in a Model United Nations Assembly.

In reviews I have read about that event, the student teams called for negotiation, mediation and for all political parties to calm down to work for peace.

Which brings me to the third and final step for change,

Step three: Empowerment and liberation of whanau, hapu and iwi.

The third factor that Project Mauriora promotes is supporting whanau in restoring their rights and responsibilities to care for their own.

We have many whakatauaki which locate the child as the greatest treasure of the whanau – ko te tamaiti te putake o te whanau.

The challenge in front of us all, is to actually live that kaupapa, to act in ways which reflect to our children their status as unique treasures of our next generations.

One of the moments of many that tore at my heart in the recent weeks, was the commitment of the Curtis whanau, who have spoken out about their “abhorrence at the abuse’ while at same time stating, and I quote:
“Our whanau want to take responsibility and will put in place processes to reduce the likelihood of this from ever happening again. While we are not the first whanau to have to come to terms with such a horrific act, we certainly want to ensure that no Curtis is ever involved in any level of child abuse in the future."

This is a statement of courage; a stand taken by that whanau, which we could all replicate in our homes.

Each of us becoming child advocates; child protection agents in our own families; to prevent the experiences of sadism, of torture, of gross neglect from ever occurring again to one more child.

We must not allow one more child to appear in the merciless roll call of abuse our country confronts.

Strong communities, strong whanau need the beating heart provided by people who walk the talk, who remind them that treating our children with love and respect is something we can all do.

While everyone must and should take up this challenge, groups such as Rotary provide a structure and network to enable things to happen. This nation desperately needs to know the population is standing strong to care for all our children, to commit to the process of liberation and transformation from violence.

Rotary has a reputation for asking the question, 'what will make a practical difference to people's lives?'

I believe the answers are right in front of us.

I could not help but notice your generous sponsorship of Starship Hospital. And when you look at the name of the Child Abuse Unit at Starship I think it gives us all the reason to act - Te Puaruruhau - literally "the sheltering of the bud".

We must all take collective responsibility to engage with our community, to care about our neighbours, to work wonders.

Treasuring our whanau, protecting our homes as havens of safety, are things that we can all do in our resistance against violence.

We must all be more vigilant on behalf of our children. We must restore a sense of compassion, the courage to care.

And maybe that is the symbol that we have all been looking for - the sheltered bud. A symbol which is so appropriate to consider as winter nudges its way into spring; as the hope and promise of a new season approaches. It is up to us all, to shelter our babies so that they may all slowly and carefully unfurl into full bloom; te Puawaitanga o te kakano.