STAFF BLOG: VIOLENCE AGAINST ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER WOMEN — A NATIONAL EMERGENCY
REFLECTIONS ON PREVALENT AND PREVENTABLE: PRACTICE AND POLICY IN THE PREVENTION OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND CHILDREN — international conference, ADELAIDE CONVENTION CENTRE, SEPTEMBER 19-22
BY KATE CHAPMAN, RESEARCH INTERN AT THE EQUALITY INSTITUTE
Late last month, staff at the Equality Institute attended the Prevalent and Preventable: Practice and Policy in the Prevention of Violence against Women and Children Conference in Adelaide. The conference was presented by Our Watch and Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and supported by The Women’s Services Network.
During one session, we were rapt by a keynote address from CEO of the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service, Antoinette Braybrook, about the effects of domestic violence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Braybrook painted a stark picture by stating that:
“violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is a national emergency”.
Anyone with even a cursory understanding of Indigenous issues in Australia would know this is not an understatement. Throughout the speech, a reoccurring theme was that for some Indigenous women, places of support and assistance can be anything but.
Aboriginal women are up to 34 times more likely to be hospitalised for family violence related assaults. Across Australia, an Aboriginal woman is 11 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide. In Western Australia that figure rises to 17.5. Establishing why these rates are so high is difficult and the language used to describe the reasons are often exclusive; terms with an academic tinge such as intergenerational trauma, internalised colonialism, and lateral violence are used regularly and not properly understood. Explanations also inevitably turn to the impact of drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, poverty and rates of imprisonment. Importantly, Antoinette Braybrook highlighted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face even more barriers when it comes to accessing help and so distrust legal and support services. This is in large part due to discriminatory practices and a profound lack of cultural competency. The story of Ms Dhu is a sadly apt illustration of the systemic failures that Aboriginal women experience all too often. In this instance, these failures were fatal.
Ms Dhu was arrested in August 2014 after police were called out to assist her in a domestic dispute. Rather than offer social support and legal assistance, Ms Dhu was detained for unpaid fines. She died two days later, after repeated calls for help were ignored by both police and medical staff. The cause of death was septicaemia and pneumonia caused by an infected rib that had been broken prior to her incarceration. In a coronial inquest held last year, it was revealed that police officers had called Ms Dhu a ‘junkie’ and accused the injured woman of ‘putting it on’. It is easy to see why scepticism of legal, medical and social services is rife.
To many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the story of Ms Dhu is a familiar one. It would be easy to get fatigued by statistics when discussing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage — a conversation forever plagued by negativity. We speak of lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality and above average levels of incarceration. Because of this, rates of domestic and family violence are easily subsumed into the harrowing milieu that accompanies mainstream news stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
While we still have a long way to go, the State Government of Victoria’s initiatives such as Koori Courts, the Indigenous Family Violence 10 Year Plan and the Aboriginal Justice Agreement pave the way to building confidence in domestic violence support services once more. The latter even acknowledges the importance of ‘strengthening services for victims of crime in ways that gain the Koori community’s confidence’. This trust is a necessary part of ensuring that Indigenous women experiencing domestic violence have access to adequate support and legal recourses, and to ultimately start changing the narrative of Indigenous women’s experiences of violence.
 The Australian Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage - Key Indicators 2014 (2014) 4.93 table 4A.11.22, available online at http://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/overcoming-indigenous-disadvantage/key-indicators-2014/key-indicators-2014-report.pdf.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2006) Family violence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Cat. no. IHW 17. Canberra: AIHW, available online at http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=6442467912
 Fairthorne, J., Walker, R., de Klerk, N., & Shepherd, C (2016) Early mortality from external causes in Aboriginal mothers: a retrospective cohort study. BMC Public Health, 16, 461, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4888491/pdf/12889_2016_Article_3101.pdf.
 Victorian Auditor-General (2014) Victorian Auditor-General’s Report: Accessibility of Mainstream Services for Aboriginal Victorians, 33, available online at http://www.audit.vic.gov.au/publications/20140529-Aboriginal-Services/20140529-Aboriginal-Services.pdf.
 Victorian Government Department of Justice (2013) Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 3, Koori Justice Unit, 125, available online at https://assets.justice.vic.gov.au/justice/resources/f4b38365-f9bc-48ef-bf3e-47ac8e6149de/aja3_web.pdf.