Child sex abuse, overweight children drag down New Zealand's health ranking
New Zealand’s child sex abuse rates are among the world’s worst, according to a United Nations (UN) report.
Ranked 32nd out of 188 countries on a range of global health measures, New Zealand’s score for childhood sexual abuse was a shocking two out of 100, with only six other countries doing as badly or worse.
Auckland University Professor Janet Fanslow said our terrible score on child sex abuse was not surprising.
Legislation and policies around sexual violence and child protection lacked prevention measures and wrongly treated sexual abuse as a problem affecting only a small number of people, she said.
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Overweight children and a high rate of deaths due to the forces of nature also dragged New Zealand down the ranks.
Singapore was top of the index on 86.8, followed by Iceland on 86 and Sweden on 85.6. New Zealand was 32nd on the index with a score of 71 (rounded). The UK was 10th with 80, Australia was 11th also with 80, Canada was 12th with 79, and the US was 24th with 74. The median index score was 56.7.
Alcohol use was another area of weakness for New Zealand, although that was also true of several countries toward the top of the table.
New Zealand scored maximum points – meaning we’re doing particularly well – on births attended by skilled health personnel, a low number of deaths due to air pollution, and household air quality.
We also got top marks for the incidence of malaria and neglected tropical diseases, and for deaths due to conflict and terrorism, but we probably cannot claim too much credit for that.
Fanslow, who is a co-director of the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, said UN data provided the “most robust international comparison”, and thus the clearest picture of New Zealand’s child sex abuse problem.
The UN’s study measured 37 health-related sustainable development goal indicators between 1990 and 2016.
Self-reported survey data was used, not data from child protection services or other crime data because that was considered to vary too much around the world. Data from relevant national health surveys and violence-specific surveys was also used.
The UN defined childhood sexual abuse as the prevalence of men and women aged 18-29 who experienced sexual violence by the age of 18.
In New Zealand, one in four girls experienced sexual violence by the age of 15, Fanslow said.
“If you regard it [sexual predation] as the isolated behaviour of a few criminals or people with problematic behaviour, you’re missing the fact that this affects a sizeable proportion of the population.
“If you think about it as a population problem, then we need to ask some bigger questions about what we tell people about sex, healthy relationships and power.”
She said legislation to tackle child sex abuse focussed too heavily on response rather than prevention, and was likely to blame for our horrific score.
Initiatives like the Child Sex Offender Register, established in October, had failed to reduce offending rates in every other country that used them, Fanslow said.
“It’s not proactive because it’s a register of people who have already committed an offence against a child.”
There was also a disconnect in recognising “the connection between child sexual abuse and intimate partner violence”.
She said international research showed it was best to keep a child victim of family violence with their non-abusive parent, but that was often not pursued under current legislation around vulnerable children.
“We act like kids are out there being vulnerable on their own.
“With [better] policy comes investment and the priority that we place on the programmes that flow out to education or community based prevention strategies . . . We can fix this.”