Empowering Aboriginal women is the key to eliminating gendered violence

Tangentyere Women's Family Safety Group's new sign.

Tangentyere Women's Family Safety Group's new sign. Photo: Tangentyere Council

Two weeks ago in Alice Springs, a group of women – most of whom were Aboriginal – gathered for the two day "Putting Gender on the Agenda" conference. The conference, which was run through partnership between the Tangentyere Aboriginal Council, Alice Springs Women's Shelter and Our Watch, hopes to be the first in many discussions of violence against women in the Northern Territory which focusses on gendered power structures and how they lie at the core of its continuation. It was an inspiring, distressing and hopeful two days.

It is incredibly important to continue the conversations on gendered power and the way it perpetuates violence against women. These discussions have been happening more and more frequently thankfully, from the awareness-raising of femicide victims undertaken by groups such as Destroy the Joint and Real for Women, to the framework released this week by Our Watch, entitled Change the story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, to Prime Minister Turnbull's own statements late in September.

Indeed, it's even more urgent to discuss gendered power in Indigenous communities given the significantly higher rates of violence recorded. Time and time again, everything but gender seems to be centralised as the cause of violence against women. This is despite the fact that Aboriginal women not only experience gendered power in a coloniser society which continually sees privileged white men as the social default, but they also experience it within their own communities where everyone is also struggling against the impact of racism.

Aboriginal activist Celeste Liddle.

Aboriginal activist Celeste Liddle.

I say this while also acknowledging Aboriginal men are significantly more likely to be victims of violence than white men. Yet of the recorded deaths this year due to violence against women, Aboriginal women are making up nearly 20 percent of the list. We are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence. We are at least three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault. We are 70 times more likely to be hospitalised for domestic violence brain injury.

So why are Aboriginal women so over-represented amongst the statistics? Time and time again, I hear that violence is a part of our culture and is therefore seen as reasonable. I am told that addiction and alcohol consumption are the causes. I am told that poverty is the main contributor. I am told isolation and remoteness lead to higher rates. I am not denying that these things do contribute to the higher rates of violence experienced by Aboriginal women. Yet they don't tell the full story. While we continue to be a country which not only ignores issues of gendered power but actually celebrates them, we're not going to solve this; for Aboriginal women or for all other women.

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The Northern Territory, due to its higher percentage of Aboriginal people, many of whom live in remote communities, is often framed as "different". In some ways it is. Services which people in the city take for granted are the very things many Northern Territory communities are crying out for. The Alice Springs Women's Shelter, for example, services an area not dissimilar in land size NSW and Vic combined because of the lack of availability of these types of programs on many communities. Yet all too often, if funding for these services is given by the government it's conditional and revolves around Aboriginal women giving up whatever small rights they have.

The Northern Territory Intervention was one example. While some supported the intervention and felt the BasicsCard was a good innovation, it's troubling that Aboriginal women, who were already impoverished and in some cases experiencing abuse, had what little autonomy they had taken away from them by the government and had no avenue for recourse. The idea that abused women can be 'empowered' by being disempowered by the state just does not compute. Indeed, statistics indicate that rates of domestic violence actually rose 61 percent in the first two years under the Intervention. Simply put, less power is the last thing most Aboriginal women need.

It was therefore timely that this conference was held only a week after the Tangentyere Women's Family Safety Group launched new signage out the front of the Alice Springs Town Camps, replacing the offensive ones placed by the government under the Intervention. Entitled "Alice Springs Town Camp Women want to be Free of Family Violence", these signs comprise of a manifesto about violence, its impacts and how town camp residents work to tackle it. This statement works in conjunction with both women's and men's training and rehabilitation programs on violence and is therefore about taking a holistic and empowering approach. If these sorts of community-grown initiatives were better supported by the government and mainstream community, the impact they could have would be truly inspiring. 

Aboriginal women are strong. They are survivors who have borne the brunt not only of all policies of colonisation enacted upon our people in this country, but also the ripple effects and transgenerational trauma for several decades. They need to be given the space and support to address issues of violence within communities. Continuing the discussions on gender, and how this intersects with racism and poverty making Aboriginal women more vulnerable is imperative to tackling the problem of Violence Against Women and, to quote the Tangentyere Women's Family Safety Group, making "every day a Sunday".