A woman of influence

Suzanne Winterflood
A woman of influence

Lesley Elliott, named the Supreme Winner at the recent Women of Influence Awards, has much in common with the other finalists. They are all determined, indefatigable and visionary, and are affecting the lives of New Zealanders in very important ways.

The crucial difference is that, unlike the others, Lesley didn’t choose her path. It was thrust upon her when her 22-year-old daughter, Sophie, was attacked and killed by an ex-boyfriend in January 2008.

“A while after Sophie died, police told me another woman had come forward with a tale of abuse by the same man,” Lesley says now. “For some obscure reason I went on to the Women’s Refuge website and found their definitions of abuse. I could hardly believe what I was reading. I had a massive meltdown – if only I’d recognised the signs.”

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Her immediate thought was to visit Sophie’s high school and tell students about Sophie’s relationship, and how to avoid getting into a similarly destructive situation. Instinctively, she’d taken her first step towards becoming New Zealand’s most passionately effective anti-violence campaigner.

“I approached other high schools in the area and it spread by word of mouth. I’ve presented Sophie’s story more than 200 times. Girls come up and tell me about what’s happened to them or a friend. A lot just want to give me a hug and have a cry.”

From the early days of the murder trial, journalists inquired about Lesley’s legacy for her daughter. “After it was over, the court case and sentencing and appeal, our family was exhausted. I could have gone home, shut the door and never come out again. But I told myself, ‘I’ve got to do this for Sophie.’”Lesley smal

So, in October 2010, the Sophie Elliott Foundation was launched. The aim: to prevent violence against young women through education and empowerment.

The statistics quoted on the website are devastating. On average, a woman in New Zealand dies every 26 days at the hands of her current or former partner. 48% of couples at age 21 have reported being physically abused by their other half.

Lesley is still amazed by the support she’s received. “Before the sentencing, I was contacted by two women who identified strongly with Sophie’s experience. One provided seed money for the Foundation, and they introduced me to people who could help. The police and the Ministry of Social Development’s It’s Not OK campaign came on board. It all fell into place and has grown from there.”

A key focus of the Foundation is the police-run Loves-Me-Not programme, which teaches Year 12 students about healthy, equal relationships.

“We want kids to think, and talk to someone they trust,” she explains. “We’re also encouraging them not to be a bystander. If you feel there’s something going on with a couple you know, tell someone. It’s better to be wrong than be in the position I’m in.”

Next on Lesley’s endless To Do list: Seeing the roll out of the programme across New Zealand; raising funds so the resource materials can be easily available to every school; promoting her second book, Loves Me Not, written with co-author and fellow Trustee Bill O’Brien; travelling the country liaising with local police; and continuing to spread the message that violence, in any form, is unacceptable.

She also, improbably, fits in a part-time job in Dunedin Hospital’s Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit.

“Although I won’t be around to witness the real impact this work has on the next generation, I think there’s already a shift in attitude. New Zealanders are talking more about psychological and physical abuse within relationships. Many people are opening up and seeking out help; many others are offering it.”

When asked how an ordinary nurse from a normal family has managed to achieve so much, and where she finds the time and energy to keep going, she smiles. “I’m sure Sophie is driving me along this track. It comes from her.”

SEE ALSO: The destructive power of cyber bullying


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