OPINION: This year I have had the misfortune to have to watch a child suffer constant abuse in her home and have felt powerless to do anything to protect her and keep her safe.”

This quote is taken from a letter written by a school teacher to the prime minister relating to a severe case of child abuse. It makes for harrowing reading.

It prompted in me a memory, long buried. A girl I’d gone to school with had regularly come to class with big black and deep purple bruises on her legs. The bruises were very high on her thighs and she wore very, very short skirts so that they could be easily seen. What to do? Who to tell? I’d worried about it at the time.

Yet it was also clear to me that all of the teachers could see the bruises just as easily as I could. How do we learn to not see, even when wounds are worn so openly, so vulnerably, so vividly in black and blue on a fair-skinned canvas?

The girl hooked up with a pimp. I recall he sent her a helium balloon, shaped like a heart with a G-string on it, to school on her birthday. She left and started working for him.

We knew that she was being hurt badly by someone. We knew that she was having sex for money, and we also knew how not to see this that somehow this was secret, unspeakable, silenced, shamed, not to be shared with adults. And because we were good girls and because these things were not supposed to happen, we maintained this silence. Our very goodness seemed to depend upon it. I was telling my husband about this memory as we were driving on Anniversary Weekend.

Just out of Wellington we saw two relatively young girls, probably still in their teens, hitch-hiking. My husband insisted we stop and offer them a lift.

“Where are you going?” I called out.

“We’re going to Huntly,” they replied.

“We’re only going as far as Otaki, but we can give you a ride.”

As they climbed into our car, I couldn’t help but comment: “Did you hear about that awful thing that happened in Huntly? That woman’s body, found burned on the side of the road?”

The danger of young women out hitch-hiking was fairly high on my mind.

“Yeah,” one of the girls replied. “We think it might be our sister.” The car went very quiet. “That’s why we are hitching. We want to go and find out if it’s her.”

“That’s awful,” I said, the shock in my voice palpable. “Why do you think it is your sister?”

“Cos her boyfriend is really psycho, he’s Mongrel Mob. He gives her real bad hidings. We reckon he could have lost the plot and finally killed her. She’s tried to leave him heaps of times. But she always ends up going back. “We reckon she might have tried to leave again and he found her.”

I wondered how many other sisters out there, friends, cousins, mothers or daughters, wondered if that burned body belonged to someone they knew, someone in a violent relationship.

It turns out the burned body did not belong to the sisters. It was another woman, and from the sketchy details that emerge, it would seem that she was most likely trying to escape from a violent relationship.

The way the death has been reported suggests that this killing is associated with an imported culture belonging to an ethnic minority, not belonging to us. These strategies of disassociation, denial and disconnection, and the many ways we devolve responsibility, are an art, long practised, and learned early.

We separate us from them, in different ways. Whether we render it an ethnic thing, a cultural thing, a gang thing, a mob thing, a poverty thing, a feral thing, an inhuman thing the constant is that there is always a victim of violence and there were always people who knew.

Ultimately, the burned body will always, in some odd way, belong to the hitch-hiking sisters who feared the worst. And I am reminded afresh that she is always somebody’s sister and no matter what the angle is, she is always one of us.

The Dominion Post

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