Trigger warning: This article references violence and sexual assault.

Paula Ormsby, leader of the first-ever women’s Mongrel Mob chapter, takes Katie Harris into the Iron Dog pad and tells her about the reality of gang life a year on from launching the Wāhine Toa.

“There were death threats, there were rape threats, there were violence threats.”

It came like a tsunami.

Reaction to the creation of the first women’s Mongrel Mob chapter was instant – the backlash unrelenting.

Talkback hosts, gang members, and even other women within the scene came for Ormsby, each armed with different barbs of criticism.

Within the wider Mob there were those saying women had “no right” to be patched. Outside, she was branded a gang sympathiser who’d fallen on the wrong side of feminism.

“Bizarrely enough I was actually okay with it. You know if somebody’s going to send a death threat, they probably aren’t going to follow through with it – it’s the ones you don’t receive that you’ve got to be worried about it.”

Canterbury University criminal justice director Dr Jarrod Gilbert has studied gangs for many years, but says there’s never been a story that’s garnered the same amount of attention as the announcement of a female gang.

“I had Mongrel Mob members calling me asking what the story was, and many were furious – I’ve never known anything like it.”

The story, he says, touched on two issues deep at the heart of gangs: the value of the patch and the value of women.

“Traditionally, one has been prized, and the other has had second-class status. I guess this chapter was rebalancing those scales.”

Ormsby’s Mongrel Mob Kingdom gang pad, the Iron Dog in Hamilton, is a meeting place for both men and women in Waikato.

The walls of the headquarters are decked with murals of the Mongrel Mob branch patches that sit under the Kingdom – the largest chapter in Aotearoa. However, the Waikato chapter distanced itself from the gang’s national council a few years ago, saying it wanted to forge a new kaupapa (founding values) of empowerment for those marginalised in society.

It’s kitted out as a dojo – members practice mixed martial arts and everything from the walls to the floor is red, white and black.

Though many Mongrel Mob members were riled up by the news of a women’s gang, Ormsby says they were supported and welcomed by the members in the Waikato Kingdom.

The threats of rape, violence and death toward Ormsby, however shocking, were unsurprising to Gilbert.

“It was fundamentally reordering gang society and in the most radical ways imaginable for some people. And within the gangs, violence is a pretty legitimate means of dispute resolution.”

Ormsby has thick skin, leathered by domestic violence.

“Because I was a well-educated, well-respected member of society I hid it as much as I possibly could and so I even hid it from my own family because I was embarrassed about it. I knew I deserved better I just didn’t know how to get out of that.”

She says this experience became a defining moment in her life, and something she believes gives her a greater understanding of what wāhine Māori in Aotearoa face.

“So when I see women that have come through different experiences, you’re able to guide them, you’re able to guide them from a completely different place.”

And those conversations, the private messages, the calls to survivors, make up a large part of what she says they do.

“We know what it’s like to be judged and discriminated against. We also know their stories, and often their stories are the same as many of the others who are involved.”

When Ormsby first unveiled plans for a women’s chapter, one of the biggest bones of contention was the patch worn by members, signifying identity, belonging and acceptance.

To the untrained eye, the bulldog symbol resting on her T-shirt appears to be a patch, just like those in the large murals adorning the gang pad she’s pictured in.

But crucially, it lacks the Mongrel Mob name, something she says is only temporary, but which remains a major sticking point within the wider Mob.

Clarity around what the women’s patch will eventually look like is hard to find, but Ormsby says she has no intention of having the women wear what you would call a traditional patch.

“We will have some rockers and probably T-shirts and some shirts and stuff like that.”

Māori and Pasifika whanau are tribal people, says Ormsby, and the patch is a place of belonging, a brotherhood, and now a sisterhood too.

Gilbert says the patch is the most prized possession of a gang member.

“The reason women were banned from membership in the early days was because they were deemed to not be tough enough to be able to protect the patch in battle.”

Gilbert told the Herald on Sunday what the Waikato chapter were essentially doing was calling for equality.

“When people say they don’t understand why women want the patch, well, they want the patch for the same reason they want the vote.”

Ormsby believes there’s still confusion around what it takes to get a patch, Some, she says, still think you need to commit a crime – which she says isn’t the case.

“The process is initially showing interest and then support. Support with our kaupapa, support in the community and support within the sisterhood and the kingdom as a whole.”

Although around four women appeared in person and five over video call to the meeting attended by the Herald on Sunday, the group is larger and growing, says Ormsby.

Most of the women are mothers – all were already associated with the Mob and a few have partners or ex-partners in the gang.

Ormsby says they attend family group conferences, open their homes to those in need, and even worked on the ground during lockdown.

“We were delivering food, giving support and interpreting information so they could understand it.”

On top of this, she claims they helped victims of domestic violence over lockdown and they did this all “without the funding”.

“It’s always heart-breaking – but hurt people [go on to] hurt people.”

It’s not just the desire to help that keeps them going, Ormsby says they’re needed and fill a space where many women are slipping through the cracks.

“Often these women struggle to articulate their experiences, but when they have a collective of other women talking exactly the same language, then because often the people on the outside have an inability to understand our lives, we are the experts on our condition.”

During the meeting members spoke of why they felt they couldn’t call the police and the barriers stopping them from revealing their gang association to support services.

It’s no secret some of the women have suffered at the hands of gang members, but getting help can prove a double-edged sword.

One woman, who lives in Hawke’s Bay, says she didn’t have the option of calling police when she says she was strangled and sexually assaulted by a former partner who was a gang member.

“They start announcing our name over coms, our addresses, who we are and then everyone knows what we’ve done, and we’re a target.”

Superintendent Kelly Ryan says police treat the safety and security of everyone who calls for assistance with the utmost importance and understand how difficult calling for help can be.

“If a person is concerned for their safety and fears that having their name and address broadcast over the police radio would endanger them further, police would take this concern seriously.”

But Gilbert says there are informal controls used by gangs which mean”narking” to the police is seen as an unacceptable thing to do.

Also playing on the woman’s mind is that the man who assaulted her could get out “any day now”, and she’s not confident that the justice system will let her know when.

“The only safety I have is in our Wāhine Toa chapter because they will probably be the first ones to tell me.

“Someone will tell one of the sisters he’s getting out and she’ll contact me. I have more safety in our Wāhine Toa than I’ve ever had in any of our systems.”

Corrections say they are committed to treating victims with respect and the Parole Board notifies registered victims of the decision to release someone.

However it’s not automatic, and eligible victims are required to apply to be added to the Victims Notification Register.

During her case, the woman says Ormsby was alongside her, picking up the pieces of her life that had been shattered by the brutal attack.

“From my broken bruised neck, black eyes, broken arm, shattered wrist. I was stomped, I was beaten, strangled and then raped. I’m worried I’m not even going to feel the same to another person again.”

It’s about healing, says Ormsby, who’s tasked herself with fighting for change within the gang environment, helping women who she says sit at the bottom rung of society.

As well as supporting each other, Ormsby says the women take part in monthly meetings with the men at the Iron Dog.

Fallout from joining the Mongrel Mob not only plays out in the media and online. Ormsby says former colleagues and friends were shocked.

“[I’m] tarred by the brush now; my career was tarnished, people couldn’t believe why somebody with almost a 30-year career and at the top of her career, would join the Mob. You know people can’t understand that.”

Losing friends comes with the territory, a road less travelled by those like Ormsby, who’s worked in education: early childhood, primary, Māori and tertiary.

But she wasn’t worried by the reactions, and says once people realised what she was doing many understood why she chose to become a Mongrel Mob leader.

In recent years, Ormsby says she has worked implementing a range of education initiatives, and is still doing contract teaching as well as running her own advocacy service.

Although not much frightens her, there is one thing she’s afraid of.

“Our women that are mums. It worries me that them becoming exposed [as members] could threaten their chance to parent their children. I’m worried that Oranga Tamariki will come in and they [could] get flagged because they are a part of a gang.”

Ormsby says the sisters are resilient, but she knows well how strong women can be broken.

“You want to absolutely shatter a woman, or shatter a people, you take what they most love, and it’s the children and that’s been happening for a long time. So when you take a woman’s children, you take her heart.”

She says women sometimes face a cruel toss-up. “They will stay [in a bad relationship] and be hurt and in hurtful environments because the pain that they suffer physically will be nothing compared to the pain of losing your children when Oranga Tamariki come and say there’s been notifications and you’ve failed to protect your children.”

She says it starts early.

“Where notifications are being put on parents for uplift for a child while they’re still in the womb and often then they’re put into care, and not long-term care, they’ll go from home to home. So then we’ve got attachment issues.

“That is incarceration from womb to the tomb.”

Oranga Tamariki Waikato manager Dee McManus-Emery says most of the work they do is helping to keep families together.

But living in violent homes poses a number of risks to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people, she says.

“A parent or parents belonging to a gang would not be a reason for Oranga Tamariki to bring a child into care. Bringing a child into care is always done in the best interests of the child amid very serious concerns, and will involve the Family Court.”

Ormsby sees her role as leader as being a protector, a guardian for gang-associated women who face a world where she says gangs are a “scapegoat”.

Waikato District Investigations manager Detective Inspector Graham Pitkethley told the Herald on Sunday police welcome any examples of positive messaging and genuine movement away from criminality.

“Particularly changes to ensure vulnerable young people do not continue to become victims of the drug use, violence and other offending associated with organised crime groups.”

However, he says in their view the Waikato Mongrel Mob and associated chapters remain a criminal organisation with strong links to other groups in the organised crime world.

“The only thing that has changed in recent years is their attempt to improve their image, in a variety of ways, including using social media.”

Ormsby doesn’t think the police perception of gangs will ever change – but she insists the Wāhine Toa are making a real difference to those hurting at the coal face.

“Outside sources can’t do that, there is just such distrust, our women have been marginalised.”

The cost of speaking out is violent threats, but Ormsby says that’s nothing compared to the pain and suffering she wants to stop.

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