Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Violence against Aboriginal Women in Australia: Possibilities for Redress within the International Human Rights Framework

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Violence against Aboriginal Women in Australia: Possibilities for Redress within the International Human Rights Framework

Article excerpt

It was a cold winter night in 1989 in a Central Australian

Aboriginal community. Although late, muted sounds of

fighting could still be heard coming from the camps.

Suddenly the screams of a woman rent the air as she ran

towards the nurses' quarters and hammered desperately on

the locked gate. Blood poured down her face and her left arm

hung limp and broken. In close pursuit was a man brandishing

a star picket.

As the nurse struggled to open the gate to admit the woman,

at the same time excluding her attacker, she noticed the

woman's T-shirt. Emblazoned across the front was the

statement: `We have survived 40,000 years.' Yes, but will

they survive the next 40, she wondered.(1)

For Australia's indigenous population there is a desperate struggle for survival; cultural, physical, and economic. For Aboriginal(2) women, the struggle for physical survival has taken on a greater urgency. The violence to which Aboriginal women are subjected has reached epidemic proportions, and it has been argued that it constitutes a continuing violation of human rights.(3)

The problem of violence against Aboriginal women incorporates an array of factors: race, gender, the after effects of colonialism, the minority status of Aboriginal people, the unequal access to societal resources, and consequent unequal development of Aboriginal communities. In addition, addressing this problem demands an appreciation of the differing roles and status of Aboriginal people, ranging from a separate or fringe community to an integrated part of Australian society. This great variety of factors complicates considerably the analysis of the issue of violence against Aboriginal women, because it involves an interplay of all these factors.

All social and economic indicators suggest that Aborigines are the most disadvantaged Australians.(4) Within Aboriginal communities, women fare the worst.(5) This is despite the fact that the role of Aboriginal women was significant in both the public and private spheres of Aboriginal society.(6)

Our knowledge of violence against Aboriginal women has until recently been quite precarious; this subject has been taboo for many reasons, some obvious. Aboriginal women have been reluctant to expose conflict within their communities to outside scrutiny which might not always be sympathetic. They have perceived that such exposure runs the risk of further denigration of their communities from the larger white society.(7) White feminists have been reluctant to engage this issue, for fear of accusations of prioritizing sexism over racism or for creating divisions within Aboriginal communities, and for fear of accusations of perpetuating the stereotype of the predatory and violent Aboriginal male.(8) However, recent reports, which I shall refer to throughout this Article, suggest that the statistics of violence against Aboriginal women require urgent attention.(9) They indicate that Aboriginal women are at far greater risk of being the victims of homicide, rape, and other assaults than non-Aboriginal women.(10)

A consequence of the limited knowledge of violence against Aboriginal women is the scant public attention or education directed to this issue.(11) Moreover, statistics concerning efforts by Aboriginal women to organize against violence is also quite sparse.(12) So too is a thorough assessment of whether the nature and extent of violence against Aboriginal women is increasing, decreasing or taking other forms.(13)

The issues discussed in this Article come with the caveat that there is no intention to portray Aboriginal women as hapless and pathetic victims who exert no agency over their lives. Katherine Burbank vividly describes the resistance of Aboriginal women to violence, and their refusal to submit to victimhood.(14) The issues raised highlight the relentless violence that has been an integral part of the colonial experience, and the havoc it continues to wreak on the indigenous communities, and particularly indigenous women. …

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