St Scholastica's has a program to encourage young Indigenous women from remote communities to study. (L-R) Students Mysti Bedford-McGinty, Freeda Roberts and Tyler Bedford Photo: Edwina Pickles
Last week, the Smith Family released a report which raised concerns that Indigenous girls had been neglected in Federal Government's May budget. The report shows that while an additional $13.4m has been committed to fund a sports-focused program which aims at encouraging Indigenous teenage boys to stay in schools, the same investment has not been made in our young women.
While I strongly believe that foundations like The Clontarf Academy are incredibly worthy of the financial boost, it’s hard to ignore the stark funding imbalance.
Sure, one could argue that Indigenous girls are already outperforming the boys in schools. Indeed, recent data show that Indigenous girls are eight percent more likely to complete year 12 than their male counterparts. Additionally, Indigenous women have been entering university at a rate nearly double that of Indigenous men. Our qualification levels are higher, our life expectancy is higher and we are generally healthier.
However, “doing better” doesn't equate to “don't need assistance”. The year 12 completion rate for Aboriginal girls is still roughly 26 percent lower than the nation’s average. And despite the growing rates of university entry, Indigenous students only make up 1 percent of the total student population.
Indigenous teenage pregnancy rates are five times higher than mainstream rates. Indigenous girls are significantly more likely to witness family violence growing up and are 40 times more likely than other women to be victims of domestic violence later on. The suicide rates for our young women are five times higher than average and Aboriginal girls are at the top of the table when it comes to self-harm rates. In short, this gap the Government is always talking about closing is a long way off when it comes to our young women.
One has to also wonder why the government has chosen to focus mainly on a program that is centred around the football codes for our young men. Many young Indigenous men do indeed aspire to be football players and the fact that they are so well represented in professional AFL shows their dedication and aptitude. But what of aspiring female athletes or young men who aren't remotely interested in football?
Considering how much our professional footballers are called upon to be faces and leaders of the community by the mainstream, you'd be forgiven for thinking a lot of the worth of Aboriginal people in general society depends on whether or not they can kick a football.
Right now, there are only a handful of programs that focus on the unique circumstances of young Indigenous women. Initiatives like Girls at the Centre by The Smith Family and the Multi-mix mob (a playgroup catering for children and their mothers) are few and far between. And most seem to be offered through not-for-profit groups or foundations with limited governmental support. A programme like Clontarf, by using sport as a way to reach them, also gives our young men so many other options by teaching them to aim high and value education. Couldn't our women also benefit from such a well-rounded approach?
The issues faced by Indigenous girls are diverse and their needs are wide-ranging. There is a demonstrated need for a range of programs geared around educational empowerment, health and well-being, parenting support and skills, sports and recreation and general leadership.
Yet at this point, apart from the above-mentioned programs, the most high profile personal development initiatives seem to be beauty contests. There needs to be so much more.
Our girls may be tracking better than the boys according to the Government’s bean-counters, but there is still a long way to go before we can scale back the support. There may be a perceived gap between the relative situations of our young men and women, but this gap is minimal compared to the gap Indigenous youth and the mainstream society.
What's more, it doesn't actually help our already struggling young men to see our young women even become more disenfranchised. If the Federal Government is truly committed to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait young people, then neglecting the needs of young Indigenous women is the wrong approach. Our girls deserve so much better.