Violence and racism in the New Zealand sex trade

This is the text of a speech that Ally-Marie Diamond gave at the ‘Sexual exploitation of rural women: From victims to leaders’ session at the annual UN Women’s #CSW67 forum on 13 March 2023. A recording of her talk is available on YouTube.

My name is Ally-Marie Diamond and I am a survivor of the sex trade. I am a kiwi, mix including Maori, Samoan and European.

New Zealand (NZ) is my birth country, and a place where my heart will always belong, which is why I speak out about my lived experiences, and our hope for the future to amplify voices and uncover the truths that have been kept secret for way too long.

Marginalisation of Māori and Pasifika women and girls

In New Zealand the sex trade is overwhelmingly made up of Māori and Pasifika women who are disproportionately represented. Māori and Pasifika women make up about 16% of the NZ population, so it is alarming that they represent 31.7% in the sex trade – more than any other ethnicity. They are paid the least, are at higher risk of experiencing violence and abuse, and are bought from the most dangerous settings such as on the streets, or lower end unregistered massage parlours. Both are more likely than Pakeha (Causcasians) to enter the sex trade under the age of 16 due to poverty, and other factors.

Already we have heard stories of Māori and Pasifika children as young as nine being sold on the streets and even being sold in massage parlours. The majority of women in the sex trade who have been murdered have also been women of colour. There is a clear divide between white and coloured in NZ, with Pakeha men being at the forefront of exploiting those of colour.

The normalisation of the sex trade in New Zealand

The sex trade and exploitation is so normalised in New Zealand that the media quite often minimises any abuse or violence reported by those in the sex trade, especially of children, by referring to them with terms like “the victim’s boyfriend.” The media minimises this abuse instead of focusing on the grooming, coercion, trafficking, and exploitation they experience. This is most disappointing and frustrating, as just like sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence were once taboo subjects that no one wanted to hear about, the violence, racism, and discrimination against women and children of colour in the sex trade is being swept under the carpet.

Recently five men were arrested in relation to underage sex trafficking in Northland, a rural region in New Zealand. They faced charges under the Prostitution Reform Act. Due to the inadequacy of New Zealand’s prostitution legislation, Marcus Barker — the first of the five men to be sentenced — received 12 months home detention for the charge of “unlawful sexual connection with a 15-year-old, receiving sexual services from her, and arranging for her to supply sexual services”. His sentence sets the tone for subsequent sentences relating to the case, as they must be consistent.

One of the other unnamed men at the centre of this continues to be referred to as the victim’s “boyfriend” by local media, ultimately minimising the situation to a technicality surrounding age, and not one of prolonged grooming, predation, and exploitation.

Trafficking and exploitation

Those in our rural areas are most at risk of trafficking, and exploitation, they are our most vulnerable, majority coloured, living in poverty, family violence, abuse, lack of education, and resources. According to a World Health Organisation study, Maori girls suffer roughly twice as much sexual abuse as European girls – 30.5 per cent of Maori compared with 17 per cent of Europeans in Auckland, and 35.1 per cent of Maori compared with 20.7 per cent of Europeans in one of our rural areas in northern Waikato.

It is important to note that our Maori families are mostly from rural areas, many of our children are not in school for lack of resources, children run away from home from lack of support, perhaps family violence, alcohol and drug use, sexual abuse within the family or community and run away to cities like Auckland to make money. But when they arrive, choices are limited, girls as young as 12 have no formal education, they are limited in what they can do. For some there are no choices. Here they may get mixed up with gangs, selling drugs, and prostitution.

Debbie Baker, the manager of Streetreach, a group supporting street sex workers, reported that she knew of at least 12 girls between 11 and 15 “out there selling themselves for sex” in the central city.

“Young meat earns a lot of money”, she says. “Underage prostitution has always been a problem, but there is an increase. We’re seeing more and more young girls out there.”

Ms Baker said she knew of a 12-year-old girl who was recruited by a gang to sell cannabis.

After spending the drug money, the girl was forced into prostitution to pay her debt to the gang and she shared the extra earnings from her work with her family.

“Her parents knew exactly what she was doing.” she says.

Due to poverty, lack of resources, support, services, families in rural communities are sending their children into prostitution. That extra money feeds their entire family which in some cases can be a community.

When it comes to choice, these children and women have none. They are so desperate to survive and feed their families that prostitution becomes their only choice.

Our coloured women and children from rural areas are most at risk, are preyed upon more by traffickers, because they know desperate people will do anything to protect their children and their families.

Violence against women and girls

Currently in New Zealand:

  • Māori and Pasifika women are beaten and killed by their partners at the highest rates in New Zealand.
  • Research shows up to 80 percent of Māori and Pacifica women will experience family and sexual violence in their lifetime. They are three times more likely to be killed by a partner than Caucasian women.
  • Māori and Pacifica women are judged and treated poorly when they do seek help from social services and law enforcement.
  • The fear of having children removed if they do report a crime is a real fear amongst Māori and Pasifika communities.

It is well documented that violence against Māori and Pasifika women and children are getting worse.

Sexual violence is normalised in New Zealand to the point that violence in all its forms against women and children is getting worse by the year.

Community leaders, media, are all asking why? Why is NZ more violent than other countries?

The Prostitution Reform Act

In 2003 NZ adopted the full decriminalisation of prostitution law, a law that only encourages and enables violence against women and children, especially those of colour.

Full decriminalisation has set an attitude within the sex trade and society that the buying and selling of women is normal work; that this is an empowering choice and should be accepted.

It has been 20 years since the Prostitution Reform Act was passed into law in New Zealand and it continues to fail women, particularly Māori, Pasifika, and Indigenous women and those experiencing poverty, homelessness, family violence, and domestic violence.

Full Decriminalisation has normalised violence against women and children. It has enabled and encouraged violence against women and children rather than reducing it.

The need for services

Trauma-informed services are desperately needed in New Zealand, services that are culturally focused and culturally represented for those who are experiencing violence in the sex trade and want an option to exit.

We also need services in prevention. If our rural communities have the support, services to prevent families having to prostitute their children for survival, if they have support and services to prevent them being vulnerable and targets for traffickers then we already begin to create change where it truly matters and where it is really needed.

While there are services for domestic violence and family violence, there are no services for coloured women and children who are being exploited within the sex trade, who are living with vulnerabilities that remove their choice and make them vulnerable to exploitation. This is why Wahine Toa Rising was born.

We saw an urgent need to have a space where vulnerable women and children, especially those of colour, could be heard, seen, valued and supported without judgement, repercussions or ridicule. A service where they could trust someone and depend on them if they were in danger.

Victims and survivors, children and young people, have told us, they don’t feel protected, and if they do try and reach out for help, the repercussions will put them in more harm’s way, so they stay silent.

Many have disclosed to us that when they have gone to get help from organisations or services, they are instantly judged, and told that there is nothing they can do. Especially if they are coming from a rural coloured community.

Sexual violence organisations close their ears when we have tried to chat with them about survivors who are needing their help, and have also relayed to us that they are unable to do anything as sex work is work, and does not come under the banner of sexual violence.

Women and children who have sought out help under sexual violence are often not believed once they tell them they are in the sex trade. Their experiences, abuse at the hands of their managers, pimps or those buying from them are not believed. They have to try and prove that violence has happened to them, and that it wasn’t a part of the fantasy.

Inability of the police to tackle the situation

Police are powerless to act for lack of resources. All they can do if they find a young girl being sold and bought for sex is take them home, where they are probably still going to be abused, and then they are back on the street within days, as the money goes to their families.

This is how normalised the sex trade in New Zealand has become, so normalised no one is listening to our most vulnerable disadvantaged women and children, mostly those of colour.

It is my hope that by sharing my heart, my own lived experience as a coloured woman in the sex trade that I can begin to create change not only throughout communities but also within Government.

Until full decriminalisation is reversed, the violence in NZ against coloured women and children will keep increasing and getting worse,

If these perpetrators can get away with violence without any repercussions, they will only continue to do it while also pushing the boundaries to see how far they can go.

It scares me to think of how many more lives will be lost at the hands of men because Governments and society are too afraid to speak up.

Commitment to be the change I long for

Ally-Marie speaking at the event
Ally-Marie speaking at the event

Bella Te Pania was a young Māori mum who had tried to leave the sex trade many times, but there were no services or support to help her. Then one day she went back, she was killed and now her daughter grows up without her mother.

Reading her story reminded me of something.

That my experiences will only control me if I let them, that the perpetrators who beat me, abused me, violated me will only win if I stay quiet.

It was at this moment that I truly found my voice and began to discover ways to amplify my heart and my own voice. That I was completely certain that I was on the right path in my life. Many times I have wanted to walk away, as memories begin to surface, emotions begin to hold me down. But it is Bella’s face that I remember, her story that I cherish, and her murder that reminds me if I stay silent then nothing changes and more lives will be taken.

So, I find ways to grow, and I connect with others who are also on this journey of change, so I can learn, so I can become stronger, more informed, wiser, louder, more disruptive.

Wahine Toa Rising

Wahine Toa Rising logo

Wahine Toa Rising was created from a dream that I had to make an impact in the lives of our vulnerable women and children whose voices and hearts were not being heard. Wahine Toa Rising has been running as a non-incorporated organisation since 2019. During that time, we have supported over 100 women and children being exploited in the sex trade. We have shared our experiences and our hearts at many events in Government and communities. But what is even more exciting is that in 2019 we began with two survivor voices and now we have 10.

For without survivor voices, testimonials, books and journeys our fight would be empty. They are the heart of this fight, they and the thousands of women and children still living in this torture every moment of every day and night.

We speak out to prevent anyone from having to live in the torture chamber we have and still at times do. Because even though we have exited this life, the memories, feelings, emotions still linger around us as if we have been cursed. Speaking out can trigger us back to those times, can cause us to feel the feelings that we felt, can cause us to feel as though we are still there experiencing the abuse, torment, torture, and paid rape. It is important that when you hear survivors share their truth you celebrate them, hear them, see them, value them, as they sacrifice their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health for the freedom of other women and children.

Wahine Toa Rising would not exist without our courageous survivor leaders, they come together for a common cause and that is to end the exploitation of our most vulnerable.

This year we have made steps to become incorporated as we come together to gift hope, create awareness, and be the best we can be, to end violence in exploitation against women and children in our communities. Survivor-led organisations are imperative to this change.

As a woman in the sex trade in NZ, when I needed help no help came, when I cried out, no one heard my voice. It is our mission to make sure that those voices today are heard, and the help that is sought will be given.

In the words of Marianne Williamson, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Wahine Toa Rising alongside our survivor leaders is that light.

Flyer for the 'Sexual exploitation of rural women: From victims to leaders' event at which Ally-Marie Diamond was speaking. This event was part of the annual UN Women's #CSW67 in New York, March 2023

Social media

Follow Ally-Marie on Twitter: @AllyMDiamond. Follow Wahine Toa Rising on Twitter: @WahineToaRising.

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