The violence in our own backyard

It's time we engaged in an in-depth conversation about the appalling violence that our indigenous women face.

It's time we engaged in an in-depth conversation about the appalling violence that our indigenous women face. Photo: Getty

If a 22-year-old, pregnant woman left her own home, only to be punched so violently in the face by a drunken family member that her jaw broke, there would rightfully be widespread condemnation or outrage.

This attack actually happened – the young woman’s broken face landed her in the operating theatre of Dr Mahiban Thomas, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, who repairs about 300 fractured jaws each year.

He described it as "one of the worst" cases he had ever seen – though many of his patients are women who have been punched in the face by a drunken friend or relative, he said.

But this particular young lady, like most of the other patients Dr Thomas treats, is indigenous, and she lives in the Northern Territory. And despite sixty per cent of the indigenous women Dr Thomas treats with facial fractures being victims of domestic violence, the outcry is yet to occur.

But why is it that when a woman gets told not to breast-feed in a Sydney café, a brief social media campaign was all it took to get a news story up and a mob of mothers out protesting. Good on them, for sure, but why aren’t more of us joining those already fighting to improve the situation for indigenous people, particularly indigenous women, victims of violence and abuse at a rate higher than most of us could imagine?

According to figures from Family and Relationship Services Australia, the risk of a woman in the Alice Springs being assaulted is 24 times higher if she is indigenous. Aboriginal women comprise about 0.3 per cent of all Australian women - but they account for 14 per cent of assault hospitalisations.

Come International Women’s Day, how many of us stop to think about these victims?

We are outraged that violence against women in Afghanistan continues to rise, incensed that female genital mutilation continues to be carried out in parts of Africa and the Middle East. But equally pressing is the harm occurring to women in our own backyard. I am guilty of this ignorance. I have discussed the horrors of female infanticide, of acid-throw attacks, of female oppression. I don’t remember ever engaging in an in-depth conversation, though, about the situation for indigenous women and the appalling violence and harm they face.

When I attended the All About Women Festival at Sydney Opera House last month, I went to discussions about misogyny, debates about feminism, heard stories of violence against women in other countries. I never once thought about the situation for indigenous women here, nor did I attend a panel or discussion that brought that issue up.

It’s timely that the government is developing its National Plan 2010-2022 to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. Driven by a series of four three-year action plans, it will specifically recognise the high incidence of violence experienced by indigenous women and their children and emphasise that they deserve the same rights as other Australians to services and protection.

At the same time, it is awful that the situation is at the point that a National Plan is needed. We believe that such complex issues such as women’s rights in Afghanistan and the killing of girl children in India are worth speaking up and out about despite their complexity. But how many of us honestly give the same thought and attention to the hundreds of women hospitalised in indigenous communities, often repeat victims in a vicious cycle?

Melissa Davey is a health and medical journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald and completing a Masters of Public Health at the University of Sydney. Twitter @MelissaLDavey

 

10 comments

  • I would like to see violence researched more, particularly the dynamics around domestic violence and attitudes to violence in general. The cultural influences are worth exploring, both from a traditional ethnic or religious perspective and the more recent cultural phenomena such as social media. Insight on SBS last Tuesday night was all about gender violence, now that we have noticed the elephant in the corner of the room we need to understand it in order to better manage this aspect of our humanity

    Commenter
    Barry
    Location
    Ballarat
    Date and time
    May 02, 2013, 8:49AM
    • This is an issue that may be left unaddressed somewhat on purpose - not because society in general thinks that indigenous women in Australia have less right to be safe from violence but because of what I often think is an excessive political correctness and fear of being accused of racism or discrimination.

      Often anything that is said against practices that are prevalent indigenous (and many other) cultures is met with cries of 'who are you to change their culture!' and 'they don't need your white supremacism ' - more often than not this comes from other Anglo people. I particularly witnessed this at uni and when I am in groups that are trying to be socially aware but often miss the point.

      This is just an observation and not a judgement as it can be difficult to speak up when you think you are at risk of offending an entire culture or race and this applies to politicians and policy makers.

      Commenter
      Dana
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 02, 2013, 10:25AM
      • I agree 100% Dana. If you say anything about this topic or many others involving indigenous people you are at risk of being called racist, a white supremacist etc for applying the same standards as you would if the people involved were white. And so we say nothing and assaults like this continue to occur.

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        May 02, 2013, 2:46PM
      • I also think alot of people are reluctant to "fix" Aboriginal society. This reluctance is completely understandable in the context of the Stolen Generation. Domestic violence against women is one symptom of a much bigger complex of problems.facing indigenous communities, and if action is taken to address this domestic violence without careful and thorough wholistic understanding of the context in which occurs then the results could be decidedly unpleasant.

        One aspect of domestic violence which is uniquely prominent in indigenous communities is a practice known as "humbugging", where a family member pressures a person into sharing their income with them. Often this pressure takes the form of physical violence, particularly when a woman is being humbugged by a male family member. Humbugging tends to be tolerated in indigenous communities because it's about sharing resources, and regular inter- and intra-clan sharing of resources is often a crucial strategy in societies which have evolved in harsh and unproductive environments. Unfortunately humbugging doesn't go well in a modern money based economy, especially when alcohol addiction and other social problems come into the equation and increase violent tendencies.

        This is a very complex problem but if we want to reduce indigenous domestic violence we have to look at addressing both the causes and symptoms of humbugging.

        Commenter
        Spadeboy
        Date and time
        May 02, 2013, 4:17PM
    • I believe violence is endemic in some indigenouus communities. Children of both sexes are victims and very frequently men are the victims of women. This is not an issue of "violence against women" but a far more general cultural issue.

      I doubt there is too much of a solution; people without purposefull employment are prone to such things and there is little emplyment in these remote areas.

      Although I am an Atheist I appreciate the value of Christianity in passifying a people and redirecting their energy in a common direction, perhaps the process did not complete.

      Commenter
      William
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 02, 2013, 11:13AM
      • The last "intervention" with indigenous communities (over alcohol & child abuse) has not exactly what I'd call a public relaitions success for the federal government.
        How could any-one expect any sort of major action by any arm of government not be construed as more patronising colonialism run rampant?
        It's the dilemma of: Do nothing and be damned, or make forceful action on the issues and also be damned.

        Commenter
        Jeff
        Date and time
        May 02, 2013, 11:18AM
        • I agree, it's not discussed or perhaps cared about enough, but what are your suggestions? What would you like to see done about it? What is the point of your article? Are there programs, charities, organisations that can provide information, help, support or ideas? Raising awareness is a good first step but if you want action - tell us where to go from here!

          Commenter
          missz
          Date and time
          May 02, 2013, 11:59AM
          • Because cultural apologists tell everyone who brings up these issues (as well as indigenous child abuse in indigenous communities) that we should back off, it is part of their culture, they'll sort it out. Then we are to throw more money at them, to show we care.

            It's sickening, nothing changes from one generation to another.
            One Rule of Law for all, no excuses, loopholes or exceptions!

            Every death and injury should be laid at the feet of these apologists. Every single one of them.

            Commenter
            why?
            Date and time
            May 02, 2013, 11:59AM
            • It is sad that no-one mentioned the abuses that go on in aboriginal area, whether they are against women, children or men by women, children or men at the All About Women Festival, but it doesn't surprise me at all as the problem has been around for decades and it's just not as fashionable as mothers breastfeeding in public and what happens OS. The biggest cause for the violence is alcohol abuse. Stop that and you will stop the violence. But to stop that you have to put restrictions on certain communities which is extremely difficult to do for a lot of different reasons by a lot of different groups. Good education would be a great help, but not westernised city education.

              Commenter
              micko
              Date and time
              May 02, 2013, 12:20PM
              • I am a domestic violence survivor now living a peaceful life while raising my daughter in a small village in northern NSW. I believe I have a small understanding and a lot of empathy for women and children in these horrible situations and have endeavoured to try to help in some way but without success. I know many women who are lucky to have beautiful relationships but also feel frustrated, angry and passionate about wanting to help make a change but don't know how to. (Current) Government programs don't work. How can ordinary Australians make a difference to the vulnerable in aboriginal communities. We have a duty of care to all people of our country.

                Commenter
                YvA
                Date and time
                May 02, 2013, 12:21PM
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