Aboriginal Violence against Women

By Bhandari, Neena | Contemporary Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Aboriginal Violence against Women


Bhandari, Neena, Contemporary Review


ELAINE Shaw was repeatedly raped and sexually abused from the age of four by her father and uncles. Her partner physically assaulted and psychologically tormented her, locking her in a room for three years to separate her from the children. Aboriginal women like Elaine Shaw--her name has been changed to protect her identity--are forty-five times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than other Australians. Such violence is common in Australia: research shows twenty-three per cent of all Australian women have been attacked by a partner or family member. Pat O'Shane, a New South Wales magistrate who is herself an Aboriginal, said that 'Women are subjected to violence daily, if not hourly, if not by the minute'.

In July this year, the Prime Minister, John Howard, personally convened a summit with Aboriginal leaders for urgent talks on how to tackle violence against women and children. This violence is so entrenched in some communities, they are labelled 'dysfunctional' communities or 'outback ghettos'. Statistics, however, reveal only a fraction of the problem: most women do not report violence to authorities because of fear, emotional bonds to their partner, commitment to marriage, concern for their children's future and loyalty to their beleaguered communities.

'There is a tradition of putting it under the carpet, for it is your own family and community who are the perpetrators', says Elaine Shaw, who cannot remember how many times she was hospitalised with horrific injuries. 'I kept hoping that things would change even though it was living death'.

Indigenous women and girls are twenty-eight times more likely than other Australian females to be admitted to hospital for assault injuries, according to a 2003 report compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare.

The crisis cannot be seen in isolation from the history of Australian Aboriginals, one of the most marginalised populations in the developed world. (See 'Australia--One Land: Two Peoples' in the August number of Contemporary Review.) Decades of racist subjugation by European invaders, the separation of tens of thousands of children, forcibly removed from their families between 1900 and 1970 under the Government Assimilation Policies to 'breed out' Aborigine blood and supposedly give them a better life, dispossession of land rights, imprisonment and lack of education, health care, jobs and housing are some of the factors contributing to indigenous gender violence, experts cite.

'The violence occurring in Aboriginal communities today is not part of Aboriginal tradition or culture. It is occurring principally because of the marginalisation of Aboriginal people, the economic and welfare dependency, continuing high levels of unemployment, the dissolution of our culture and tradition and the breakdown of societal and community values', says Prof. Mick Dodson of the Australian National University's Institute for Indigenous Australia. Harry Blagg, research fellow at the Crime Research Centre in the University of Western Australia agrees: 'Colonisation undermined structures within these communities which guaranteed law and order and safety of women and children and rendered Aboriginal men essentially redundant. The only way to get through to these men is through their own culture'.

Indigenous leaders are demanding a holistic, rights-based approach to family violence rather than a quick-fix, 'one-size-fits-all' approach. Alison Anderson, the only woman on the board of the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the highest advisory body for indigenous affairs, says, 'White, government-imposed structures ... don't work in the grassroots indigenous communities'. Alison Anderson, from Papunya near Alice Springs--home to some of the poorest communities in Australia--is among Aboriginal leaders who say the government should support solutions devised by communities, enhance the role of women and shift the focus from blame to prevention. …

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