During my time as family violence prosecutor I met many victims of family violence. The vast majority of them were women, many of them were children. Working at the coalface of the impacts of family violence allows you a small window into the lives that so many women and children are living. Through that window I have seen unspeakable acts of violence: levels of cruelty and degradation difficult to fathom. No matter the age, background or socio economic status of the women I worked with there were some common themes. Fear. Courage. Despair. Survival. Overwhelmingly though the one universal theme common to almost every single victim of family violence I dealt with was that they just wanted the violence to stop. This was so whether they spoke English, were employed, were a mother, had a disability, were going to stay with their partner and yes, it was absolutely so for the Indigenous women I dealt with. When I reflect on that work I am always struck by the profound simplicity of that common desire amongst victims, no matter their circumstance, to free their lives of the violence perpetrated against them. Indeed, I am humbled by it.
This piece can’t end there though. Whilst my experience of the common longing of victims of family violence is worthy of recognition and identifiable similarities can unite us in the struggle, it is the differences among some victims of family violence that we really must confront. The reality for Indigenous women: for me, my tiddas, my aunties is that family violence is more likely to touch our lives at a level so unacceptable that it should shock you. But I don’t think it does. It should compel you to action. But it doesn’t. It should make you rethink where symbolic gestures are getting us. But you prefer not to think too deeply about that and sport your ribbon, wristband or t-shirt instead. I think you’re almost immune to the appalling statistics that reflect the position of my people that this one is just one more area with a gap.
On any available statistical analysis Indigenous women are significantly more likely to be a victim of family violence. To be hospitalised because of it. To die as a result of it. Some would argue to have their children removed because of it. Ridiculously Indigenous women appear more likely to be criminalised themselves for their engagement with the systems charged with protecting them when they report family violence.
These are complex issues. No-one gets that better than I do. There are layers of complexity for Indigenous victims of family violence that aren’t at play for non-indigenous women. The imprint of the historically fraught relationship between my mob, the criminal justice system and the State, permeates any interaction Indigenous women have with the systems in place charged with keeping them safe (and let’s be frank, those systems struggle to provide safety for non-Indigenous women).Indigenous women are often rightfully cynical of the mainstream remedies available to them when they are the victim of family violence. I know from my own experience there are racist undertones that accompany the way family violence amongst Indigenous people is dealt with by many mainstream services and systems – there’s a ‘leave ‘em to it, it’s their way’ mentality that Indigenous women work against to be taken seriously as if somehow victimhood is part of our cultural legacy (it isn’t). And our own specialised services often suffer from acute underfunding.
The situation for Indigenous women in some rural and remote areas is so dire that you prefer to avert your gaze. Recent figures out of the Northern Territory suggest that Aboriginal women are 80 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault.
Eighty. Times. More. Likely.
You can imagine the frenzied response if that statistic was being played out amongst young white men on the streets of Sydney’s Kings Cross.
Alcohol abuse is often cited as a major contributor in that region which is no doubt the case but what is often left out of the sound byte analysis is the underlying factors that contribute to that abuse and lead to violence like limited and overcrowded housing, the ad hoc nature of funding for support services or the complete absence of any support services at all. Continuing to focus on the symptom will see the cause remain & the cycle persist.
Within our own communities we are acutely aware of the appalling rate at which our brothers, husbands, uncles and sons are marching into prison. We want our men to be part of the solution and a great many of our brothers are. Equally though, we want our women and children safe. We are justifiably wary of what it means for our men when we confront the brutal reality of the lives many of our tiddas and their children are living. We must come to grips with that tension when we have this conversation and speak about solutions.
We must be brave and you must be brave with us. Our politicians must be brave and support proper, long term funding and community led solutions recognising a one size model of solution does not fit all. Ensuring the full protections & supports, such as they are, available to non-Indigenous women are equally available to Indigenous women wherever their community, is a start. You have to listen to us – even when you don’t agree with the apparent politics of our message because it’s our lives and the lives of our families on the line. Because at the end of the day, Indigenous women just want the violence to stop too.
So when you think about the position of Australian women on International Women’s Day spare a thought for your sisters whose greatest struggle isn’t getting on a corporate board or ‘having it all’. Think about the women contemplating their very survival and then think about the position of the Indigenous women in that category – they are the litmus test of how far we have to go.
This is an edited version of this piece that first appeared in Daily Life on Monday 10 March 2014.