By Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of people held candlelight vigils in New Zealand on Wednesday to mourn a 22-year-old British woman who was killed while she was on a backpacking tour, as the national outpouring of grief focused attention on violence against women.
Events were held in towns and cities across the country to mourn Grace Millane and other female victims of violence, four days after a man was charged with her murder.
Auckland's iconic Sky Tower was bathed in white light to commemorate the backpacker, who went missing in New Zealand's largest city on Dec. 1 while on a world tour after finishing university.
In the capital Wellington, the city's mayor and New Zealand's justice minister joined about 500 people who lit candles, sang and prayed in the indigenous Te Reo Maori language. They demanded action on gender-related violence.
"I've been Grace. I've been around the world, I've gone on dates...it really shook me," said Katie Brown, who attended the vigil in Wellington.
"It also reminded me of women that have had their lives taken, have been murdered by men and I wanted to honour them too," she said.
The shock triggered by the discovery of Millane's body on the outskirts of Auckland on Sunday has fuelled a national debate over the country's high rates of violence against women.
New Zealand has some of worst rates of family and intimate partner violence among the 37 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a government report said this week.
Police in the nation of 4.5 million people are called out to an incident of domestic violence roughly every four minutes, the report said, and at least a third of woman have been subjected to sexual or physical violence.
The government introduced a law this year requiring companies to give paid leave for employees who faced domestic violence. It also imposed tougher penalties for strangulation, which can lead to more serious violence such as death.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, holding back tears, publicly apologised to Millane's family on Monday, describing the country's "sense of collective shame".
Police have declined to say whether Millane knew the man charged with her murder, but he had been seen with her in several places before she went missing.
A judge refused the 26-year-old man's request to suppress his name in media coverage. But the man cannot be named while his lawyer appeals that decision.
The case has sparked a debate on social media about whether New Zealand was still safe for female backpackers and whether the killing would discourage women from travelling alone.
David Millane said he would return to the United Kingdom with his daughter's body on the weekend.
"We would like to thank the people of New Zealand for their outpouring of love, numerous messages, tributes and compassion," Millane said in a statement.
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; editing by Darren Schuettler)