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National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges

1987 –

This essay written by Toni McCallum was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1981 – 1993

Women's Refuge in Aotearoa / New Zealand can be seen as continuing the tradition of women responding to other women's needs. In 1991, over 12,500 women and children were admitted to refuges throughout the country. There were over 50 refuges, each an autonomous incorporated society or trust, affiliated to the National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges (NCIWR) and run by paid and unpaid advocates.

In 1993 refuges provided a 24-hour crisis phone and safe house service for battered women and their children, and counselling, referral and advocacy services. They:

arrange medical attention, help obtain a protection order or lay an assault charge, help a woman apply for a state house, a benefit or a re-establishment grant; whatever's required to enable a battered woman to make an informed decision about her future and to move back into the community. [1]

Reaching out into the community with education programmes to change attitudes to family violence also had high priority.

The stories shared by women and children shaped the organisation as it existed in the 1990s. Central to it was the policy of parallel development, an agreement between Māori women and women of other cultures enabling each to develop services which were both culturally appropriate and complementary.

Refuges emerged in the early 1970s, developing from the work of feminist groups in response to increased awareness of family violence in the community. The first refuge was established in Christchurch in 1973, the Auckland Halfway House opened in 1975, and the Dunedin Women's Refuge in 1976.

The Christchurch refuge developed in association with the Christchurch Women's Centre, which three women's groups had been instrumental in setting up: Radical Feminists, University Feminists and Sisters for Homophile Equality. Lesbians provided much of the initiating energy for the refuge movement. The women's centre initially operated from an old, run-down house in the inner city. When the neighbouring house became vacant, it was renovated and established as a refuge. A pledge system was implemented to pay for running costs, with additional financial support from the women living at the two local communes, Chippenham and Mansfield. In 1975 this refuge received a council house, and the women raised funds to cover most of the basic running costs.

The Auckland Halfway House and the Dunedin Women's Refuge had similar financial difficulties, depending on donations from the community for their day-to-day running. The Auckland Halfway House also received grants from the International Women's Year fund and the Mental Health Foundation.

Women involved in the early refuges used their creativity and strength to run the houses. They wanted to operate collectively with feminist principles, rather than using hierarchical structures. Refuges attracted a wide range of women helpers, committed to providing a safe place for women and children from every class and background. Prevention work played a vital part from the beginning.

The early refuges operated in a society that neither supported nor understood their work. The foremothers of refuge were labelled 'perverts who wanted to escape from men', and seen as marriage breakers. [2] There was still a strong belief that family violence was not a major problem in the community. When the women from Auckland Halfway House first proposed setting up a refuge, they were told 'it [family violence] could not happen in New Zealand'. [3]

The second wave of refuges began establishing in the period 1977–78, in Hastings, Napier, Nelson, Blenheim, Palmerston North, Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt, Wellington, Whanganui, and Tauranga, and another in Christchurch. The development of these refuges was a direct response to an increased awareness of family violence in those communities.

In 1979 and 1980, with the help of the Mental Health Foundation and subsequent funding from the Lottery Grants Board, refuges started to meet nationally every six months, beginning in October 1979. The Mental Health Foundation also arranged a 1979 speaking tour by one of the founders of the refuge movement in Britain, Erin Pizzey from Chiswick Women's Aid.

The need for an official national body to receive and distribute funds, negotiate permanent funding, co-ordinate the refuges and provide national representation led to the incorporation of NCIWR in May 1981. A core group (management committee) and national co-ordinator were elected in August 1981.

Woman fund-raising on street
Street appeal for Wellington Women's Refuge and Te Whare Roki Roki, December 1987. About 200 members and helpers collected $18,000 toward renovating a house, employing another worker and covering general expenses. Same-day appeals in Lower Hutt and Porirua were less successful.

Both locally and nationally, refuges continued to lobby the relevant legal, social and political agencies on behalf of abused women and children. The growth of refuges and an increased awareness of family violence were among the factors leading to the introduction of the Domestic Protection Act 1982, which contained legal provisions for protection from family violence. From 1983, the government provided funding, through the Department of Social Welfare's Family Violence Prevention programme, to meet about half the costs of refuge services.

By the early 1980s it was clear that there was an unmet need among Māori women, and those who were using the existing refuges found the services were not always appropriate. In 1984 a small group of Māori women raised these issues, together with the need for greater participation and control by Māori women at all levels of the organisation. A national hui for Māori refuge workers was held in 1985 to identify their needs, and recommendations were submitted to the 1986 annual general meeting. The Māori women called for equal representation of Māori and non-Māori on the national executive, endorsement of a position for a national Māori coordinator to oversee and support Māori initiatives and the national office, and the assurance that future developments within the movement would be complementary. The remits were accepted, and in November 1988 the NCIWR constitution was altered to incorporate the concept of parallel development.

This was a landmark, both in its recognition of the status of Māori as tangata whenua and in its commitment to providing complementary services to women and children of all cultures. The number of Māori women working in refuge increased dramatically, Māori women began to take leadership roles at both national and regional level, and Māori refuges were opened. At all levels, Māori and non-Māori caucuses met separately where appropriate, before convening together.

The first Māori women's refuge to incorporate, in March 1987, was Te Whakaruruhau in Hamilton. The Māori Women's Centre in Hamilton recognised the urgent need for a refuge, and negotiations began with the national Māori co-ordinator. Two women from the centre provided most of the energy in getting the refuge up and running. They located a suitable house, and negotiated with the Housing Corporation; it agreed to do the necessary extensions, which took four weeks.

Meanwhile the women looked after abused women and children in their one-bedroom flat, and did cleaning work at night to cover the running costs. When funding from the national collective started six months later, there was still a shortfall for daily expenses. Once the house was opened, it was run on marae principles. After the first women arrived, the demand was constant, and there were always three or four families living in the house.

The second Māori women's refuge to open, in May 1987, was Te Whare Roki Roki in Wellington. Leading up to this, the small collective of women held two public meetings to seek support from the Māori community and raise awareness of the service they intended to provide for Māori women and children. They also campaigned for helpers and began networking within their community. Two of the central issues discussed initially were whanau responsibility and the role of men.

In April 1989 two co-ordinators were appointed, and a second opening of the house was held to mark a re-evaluation of the work achieved since 1987 and the introduction of new collective members. In the 1990s Te Whare Roki Roki continued to receive support from the Wellington Māori community.

Women gathered in front of tree
Collective members and supporters at the opening of Te Whare Pounamu Women's Refuge in Dunedin, March 1990.

In 1993 there were ten Māori women's refuges working alongside sister refuges to provide complementary services for Māori women and children, and the positive Māori face of refuge was growing. This was reflected in the increasing number of Māori women both using and working in refuge. The continued development of non-Māori services included the opening of a Pasifika women's refuge.

The late 1980s saw growing political recognition of the work being done, and the need for a more co-ordinated community response to family violence. In 1986 the Women's Refuge Foundation was established; its primary purpose was to raise funds to support refuge work.

Refuge continued to raise many concerns surrounding family violence, such as appropriate training for police, concerns relating to the Family Court and the Domestic Protection Act 1982, and the accountability of men working in this area. A further priority was making refuges a safe, supportive and empowering place for both lesbian workers and lesbians needing refuge services.

Refuges welcome all women who have been abused, not just those who have been abused by their husband or defacto husband. . . . Nor is it only women in sexual relationships who are abused. Sons abuse their mothers, sons-in-law their mothers-in-law, brothers their sisters, and fathers their daughters. [4]

One 1990s priority was addressing the special needs of children in refuges, half of whom had been physically abused. Refuges were initiating ways of working with children which actively encouraged their development, self-esteem, and non-violent behaviour. Such work reflected the core of refuge philosophy: believing that intervention is necessary to break the cycle of violence being passed on from one generation to another, and providing the best possible service to all women and children.

Toni McCallum

1994 – 2018

In 2018 the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges (NCIWR) was made up of over 40 independent Refuges, including 13 kaupapa Māori Refuges, which continued to meet a high level of need. In 2017/18, 27,386 women and children used the services of Women’s Refuge; the crisis line received 62,250 calls, and the safe houses provided 56,975 bednights to women and children throughout the country.

Women’s Refuge also provided a number of other services to women and children, including transitional housing and the Whānau Protect National Home Safety Service, which carried out security upgrades to the homes of women and their children at a high risk of revictimisation from the abuser. In 2017/18, 423 adults and 686 dependent children were able to safely stay in their own homes as a result of Whānau Protect.

Women’s Refuge remained a constant in communities throughout New Zealand; however, public and political understanding of family violence and commitment to addressing the issue changed between 1994 and 2018. In 1995, the Domestic Violence Act was passed, defining domestic violence as sexual abuse, physical abuse, and psychological abuse, including economic or financial abuse. This Act also defined protection orders, providing state protection for victims of domestic violence from any further abuse and violence from the abuser. In 2018, the Victims’ Protection Act became law, making New Zealand the first country in the world to pass legislation providing short-term flexible working conditions for victims of domestic violence.

While the outcomes of the Victims’ Protection Act were yet to materialise and be evaluated, gaps in the effective implementation of the Domestic Violence Act remained, including in relation to the protection of children under this Act, and decisions made under the Care of Children Act. These shortfalls related mainly to subjective judgements about women who are victims of domestic violence, and to poor and inaccurate understanding and analysis of domestic violence within the Family Court.

Despite a number of changes in public and political awareness, the sometimes poor and inconsistent understanding and analysis of domestic violence and the ongoing high rates of domestic violence in New Zealand meant that the role of Women’s Refuge in supporting victims through advocacy and safe accommodation endured. Women’s Refuge also continued to advocate for victims of domestic violence on a national and international scale, and to raise awareness and educate communities, professionals and workplaces about domestic violence.

Despite the increasing demand on its services, Women’s Refuge was to receive its first increase in government funding in ten years in 2019/20. The movement continued to be dependent on relatively short funding cycles and on donations from the private sector or the public. A large proportion of its workforce, therefore, worked on a voluntary basis.

Kate Burry


[1] New Zealand Women's Refuge Foundation Media Kit, National Appeal 28 July–3 August 1992.

[2] Zoe Fryer, 'Christchurch Women's Centre', Happenings, 1974, p. 41.

[3] Julie Thompson, 'Halfway House: A Self Help Refuge for Women', Broadsheet No.42, September 1976, p. 21.

[4] NClWR, Fresh Start, A Self Help Book For New Zealand Women In Abusive Relationships, NCIWR, Wellington, 1984, p. 9.

Unpublished sources

Good, Raewyn, Co-ordinator's Report to the First Annual General Meeting of the Wellington Women's Refuge Group (lnc.), 27 March 1980

McCallum, Toni, interviews with Rosemary Ash, national co-ordinator NCIWR, 1981–87; Parekotuku Moore, a founder of Te Whare Roki Roki; Ariana Simpson and Ronnie Albert, founders of Te Whakaruruhau, 1992

Milner, Barbara, Short History of Christchurch Women's Refuge, manuscript, 1985; transcript describing beginnings of Christchurch Refuge, 1992; in possession of Barbara Milner, Christchurch

NCIWR records, 1981–1992, NCIWR National Office, Wellington

NCIWR records digital archive, NCIWR, Wellington

Published sources

Ash, Rosemary and Raewyn Good, Refuge Herstory Christchurch – Growth, Funding and Comments, NCIWR, Wellington, 1985

Broadsheet, No. 30, June 1975; No. 31, July 1975; No. 42, September 1976; No. 61, July 1978

NCIWR, Annual Reports, NICWR, Wellington, 1994–2018