A range of terms are used to describe violence within families and relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand. Definitions of family and whānau violence may vary depending on the context or purpose, for example policy, legal or research. Below are links to a range of New Zealand and international definitions commonly used in the field.

Family violence

A commonly used policy definition of family violence in New Zealand is from Te Rito: New Zealand Family Violence Prevention Strategy (Ministry of Social Development, 2002, p.8):

"Family violence covers a broad range of controlling behaviours, commonly of a physical, sexual, and/or psychological nature which typically involve fear, intimidation and emotional deprivation. It occurs within a variety of close interpersonal relationships, such as between partners, parents and children, siblings, and in other relationships where significant others are not part of the physical household but are part of the family and/or are fulfilling the function of family. Common forms of violence in families/whānau include:

  • spouse/partner abuse (violence among adult partners);
  • child abuse/neglect (abuse/neglect of children by an adult);
  • elder abuse/neglect (abuse/neglect of older people aged approximately 65 years and over, by a person with whom they have a relationship of trust);
  • parental abuse (violence perpetrated by a child against their parent); and
  • sibling abuse (violence among siblings)."

The New Zealand legal definition is found in the following sections of the Family Violence Act 2018:

Section 9 - Meaning of family violence
Section 10 - Meaning of abuse
Section 11 - Meaning of psychological abuse
Section 12  - Meaning of family relationship: general
Section 13 - Meaning of family relationship: sharing household
Section 14 - Meaning of family relationship: close personal relationship

Whānau violence, violence within whānau

The Second Māori Taskforce on Whānau Violence states:

“The Taskforce understands whānau violence as the compromise of te ao Māori values. Whānau violence can be understood as an absence or a disturbance in tikanga. Tikanga is defined by this Taskforce as the process of practising Māori values. The Taskforce believes that transgressing whakapapa is a violent act and that Māori have a right to protect (rather than defend) their whakapapa from violence and abuse.”  

Transforming Whānau violence: a conceptual framework (Kruger at al, 2004, p.10)

Intimate partner violence

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the following uniform definition of intimate partner violence, intended for use by individuals and organisations interested in gathering public health surveillance data on intimate partner violence:

“Intimate partner violence includes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression (including coercive tactics) by a current or former intimate partner (i.e., spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, dating partner, or ongoing sexual partner).”

Intimate Partner Violence Surveillance: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements: Version 2.0 (CDC, 2015, p.11)

Child maltreatment

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides the following uniform definition of child maltreatment:

“Any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.”

Child maltreatment surveillance: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements (CDC, 2008, p.11)

Under the New Zealand Family Violence Act 2018 (section 11), causing or allowing a child to see or hear the physical, sexual, or psychological abuse of a person with whom the child has a family relationship (or putting the child at real risk of seeing or hearing that abuse occurring) is considered psychological abuse of that child. However the person who suffers that abuse is not regarded as having caused or allowed the child to see or hear that abuse (or put the child at risk of seeing or hearing that abuse).

The Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 (Children’s and Young People’s Well-being Act 1989) (section 14) provides a definition of a child or young person considered to be in need of care or protection.

Sexual violence

The World Health Organization defines sexual violence as:

“any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting including but not limited to home and work”.

World report on violence and health (Krug et al, 2002, p.149)

The Centers for Disease Control provide a uniform definition of sexual violence (against adults or children):

“Sexual violence is defined as a sexual act that is committed or attempted by another person without freely given consent of the victim or against someone who is unable to consent or refuse. It includes: forced or alcohol/drug facilitated penetration of a victim; forced or alcohol/drug facilitated incidents in which the victim was made to penetrate a perpetrator or someone else; nonphysically pressured unwanted penetration; intentional sexual touching; or non-contact acts of a sexual nature. Sexual violence can also occur when a perpetrator forces or coerces a victim to engage in sexual acts with a third party. Sexual violence involves a lack of freely given consent as well as situations in which the victim is unable to consent or refuse …” (continues)

Sexual violence surveillance: Uniform definitions and recommended data elements. Version 2.0 (CDC, 2014, p.11)

The New Zealand Crimes Act 1961 contains the legal definitions of sexual offences (sections 127-144C).

Child sexual abuse

The World Health Organization defines child sexual abuse as follows:

“Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society.”

Report on the Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention (WHO, 1999, p.62)

Gender-based violence against women

United Nations General Assembly defines:

“‘Violence against women’ means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 48/104, 1993, Article 1

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women provided the following definition of gender-based violence (GBV):

“violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.”

General Recommendation No. 19 (1992)

See also the updated discussion in the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation No. 35 (2017).

Gender-based violence can also include violence against transgender populations which often targets gender nonconformity, gender expression or identity, and perceived sexual orientation:

Gender-Based Violence Against Transgender People in the United States: A Call for Research and Programming (Witz et al, 2018)

Elder abuse and neglect

The World Health Organization defines elder abuse and neglect is defined as:

"a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person."

New Zealand’s Family Violence Intervention Guidelines: Elder Abuse and Neglect, Ministry of Health (2007, p.11) provide a detailed discussion of the interpretation of the World Health Organization definition in the New Zealand context.

Specific communities

Family violence can be experienced in specific ways in various ethnic and cultural communities and communities of interest or belonging. For example common dynamics, forms of abuse and victim-perpetrator relationships can vary. For more information, see the relevant sections of our Recommended Reading.

Last updated August 2019