'Women in Indigenous communities in Australia refuse too accept the shocking levels of violence against them. A new Guardian series highlights significant work on the frontline around the country.
Recently I attended a meeting at the Redfern Community Centre of Aboriginal women working with other Aboriginal women to help them transition from prison back into the community.
Several things struck me that morning but the most overwhelmingly was the number of Aboriginal women who, with no resources, were doing work that was essential in supporting other Aboriginal women. The work they were focused on was targeting women who were the most likely to fall through the gaps of mainstream services, the ones who will leave prison with the fewest options and resources and the ones most vulnerable to recidivism or to enter repeat cycles of violence.
Another observation among this group of highly motivated and determined women was how important it was for them to take the time to talk about shared concerns. Strikingly, they had not met as a group before because taking time away from the frontline work, even for a couple of hours, seemed like a luxury, but there seemed to be great power in bringing the group together. They shared many similar frustrations even though they used experience and street smarts to navigate the criminal justice, welfare and social housing systems on behalf of their clients.
A large part of the stories these women told about their own experiences or those of the women they were helping involved domestic violence. Breaking that cycle was a key part of their work and they exchanged stories about how little support there was for their clients from mainstream services because the needs were so specialised.
We can hear the statistics of the level of domestic violence faced by Aboriginal women and children and feel the enormous horror. The recent landmark study in Victoria, the “Always was, always will be Koori children” report, showed that 88% of Aboriginal children had been exposed to family violence. It is easy to be outraged and wonder why the Indigenous community isn’t doing something about it.
The fact is Indigenous people - as a new Guardian Australia series launching this week shows - are doing plenty. The work being done in Redfern is replicated in communities across the country. And not just by women. Many community-based projects are now requiring men to take responsibility for violence. In particular, programs that prevent men participating in team sport if they have engaged in domestic violence is one example of serious attempts to change male culture and behaviour in a positive way.
It may look to some people on the outside that not enough is being done because they just don’t see it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is the nature of the work that it is often poorly paid or not paid at all and tends to be invisible. Community members work with few resources – and often little institutional support – and so their work, while critically important and life changing to individual clients, cannot hope to counter, quickly and swiftly, the systemic underlying issues that lead to domestic violence.
Sitting among those women that morning, I thought about how often I am asked by mainstream services working in issues that greatly affect Indigenous women - including domestic violence - about how they can get Indigenous women involved in their programs. How can they find someone to sit on their advisory committee or to run a program they have funding for?
It seems to me that this is the wrong question. Rather than asking about how to get more Indigenous women to work on the programs they have designed and are running, perhaps the questions should be how those organisations can support the work Aboriginal women are trying to do within their own community. Empower them to be even greater agents of change within their communities.
Indigenous women are the most marginalised within the community. They have no voice, no media platform and no influence. They spend more time doing and no time talking about what they are doing on the most difficult parts of the frontline. As journalist and broadcaster Amy McQuire has pointed out, their voices are “frequently left out, as the media construct false narratives around silence in order to ironically, silence others.”
As McQuire points out, assuming that Aboriginal women are so depraved that they put up with, and even cover up, shocking levels of abuse deprives them of humanity. The majority of Aboriginal women do not find violence acceptable and do not believe it should be tolerated as a part of their culture. Whatever the arguments about what role violence has played in Aboriginal society, nothing changes the fact that it is not to be tolerated as part of the culture in our communities today, any more than it should be in any other community anywhere in the world.
There are several things that would better support Indigenous women who are the agents of change within their community in the area of domestic violence. Funding Indigenous community-based and controlled organisations to do the essential work to deliver the programs and support to Indigenous people who are the victims of family violence, and trying to escape it, is an important step.
Another is it to acknowledge their work, pay respect to their determination and commitment and to honour the way in which they are working to make a profound difference in the lives of other Aboriginal women.
And perhaps the most important thing is to listen to what they know, what they have learned and what they believe needs to be done and support them to do it.'