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