Empowerment through education

He loves me, he loves me not . . .

Many a young girl will remember playing the innocent-seeming childhood game, plucking petals off a daisy one at a time to determine whether the object of their affection returns their feelings. (And many will have bent the rules - perhaps two petals at a time - to achieve the ''right'' outcome. After all, who wants to find themselves ''unloved''?)

Many grow into young women and, sadly, find themselves in a far more sinister situation, no longer a game, in a relationship where even trying to understand and play by, let alone break the ''rules'', can be dangerous, and control, powerplay and various forms of abuse are often mistaken for love.

Helping young women - and their families and friends - identify the signs of abuse in relationships, learn strategies to empower themselves, and thereby help prevent violence against women, have been the aims of the Sophie Elliott Foundation, established by Dunedin mother Lesley Elliott after her 22-year-old daughter was killed by her former boyfriend, Clayton Weatherston, at her family home in Ravensbourne in 2008.

The foundation developed its ''Loves-Me-Not'' programme, based on a similar one in Australia, and in conjunction with the NZ Police and the Ministry of Social Development.

It focuses on teaching the difference between healthy (equal) relationships as opposed to unhealthy (controlling) ones. The programme, a one-day course for year 12 pupils, has been piloted in nine New Zealand schools, including Oamaru's Waitaki Girls' High School and St Kevin's College.

This newspaper reported last week the programme has been deemed so successful it is now being rolled out nationally, starting with one school in each of the 12 police districts, and then to as many as is feasible, and according to interest from schools.

That the programme's genesis came from such horror is heartbreaking, yet it is gratifying its effectiveness has been recognised nationally and that thousands of young women - and, equally as importantly, young men - will now benefit from the life skills it can impart.

It will be another important tool in this country's struggle against domestic violence, sadly endemic in New Zealand - the result of alcohol availability and price, a culture of excess and permissiveness, loss of fundamental values and support networks, increasingly gratuitous images on our television, movie, internet and gaming screens, latent anger and aggression, and a ''hard man'' image, which can result in punch-ups on the sports field and on the sidelines, brawls in boozers, random street violence after a night out, and insidious physical and psychological violence (bullying, intimidation or denigration) behind closed doors.

Statistics show one in three New Zealand women experience violence from a partner in their lifetime, and, on average, 14 women are killed each year by a family member.

The foundation says police receive a call for help in a domestic setting every seven minutes. Of course these figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, as many women will suffer abuse in silence and fear, without calling authorities.

While skills to empower women are to be encouraged, men (for it is predominantly men who are the abusers in relationships) must also be encouraged, educated and supported so they can stop the cycle of violence.

That is certainly a strength of the Loves-Me-Not programme, as is recognising the importance of teaching skills to youngsters who are just beginning to have relationships, showing them positive ways of relating to others, and respecting themselves, before negative behaviours and attitudes become entrenched in another generation.

Lesley Elliott must be commended for her determination and energy in the face of unimaginable tragedy to ensure other families do not have to endure what her family has.

The programme will be another way the Elliott family can ensure Sophie's legacy is a positive and inspiring one - as the clearly bright and ambitious young woman would no doubt have inspired others in a variety of ways had she been allowed to live her life to the full.


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