If you think Aboriginal women are silent about domestic violence, you’re not listening
5/10/16; Amy McQuire Aboriginal; @amymcquire
The voices of Aboriginal women are hoarse from decades of screaming into the abyss of Australian apathy. It’s time to end the blame game and start healing – Warren Mundine, laid the blame for a supposed silence about domestic violence in Aboriginal communities at the feet of black Australia.
If your only access to Aboriginal communities was through the media, you might believe there is a “devastating silence” around the staggering rates of family violence in our communities.
That’s the position continually put forth by outlets like the Australian, which recycle these tired arguments every couple of months, pretending that each new piece is “shocking” and a brave exercise in speaking out.
The latest comes from former ALP president, Warren Mundine, who on Monday laid the blame for this supposed silence at the feet of black Australia.
“Frankly, if Indigenous people remain silent we deserve to be tarnished,” he wrote.
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“When communities protect abusers they are complicit in abuse. When families hide or turn a blind eye to abuse, they enable abusers to commit crimes. It’s no wonder victims are afraid to speak up.”
But if you think Aboriginal women have been silent, it’s only because you haven’t heard us, our voices now hoarse after decades of screaming into the abyss of Australia’s apathy.
There are many strong Aboriginal women who not only talk about family violence in our communities regularly, but also work directly in the field. So many, I should add, that I’ll no doubt fail to list them all. These are women like Judy Atkinson, Janet Hammill, Jackie Huggins, Kylie Cripps, Larissa Behrendt, Megan Davis and Louise Taylor. The list goes on and on. I know because I’ve had all of these women on my radio show Let’s Talk on Brisbane Aboriginal radio station 98.9 FM.
So it’s always confusing when these strong voices are conveniently left out, as the media construct false narratives around silence in order to ironically, silence others.
Throughout the history of “Australia”, the bodies of Aboriginal women have been continually used for political purposes. Our ancestors were slandered, stripped of agency, and painted in racist caricature, to justify the theft of land and slaughter of tribes.
This is a continuation of the colonial project, because it assumes that Aboriginal people, and women in particular, are somehow immune to feeling, that they are so depraved that they put up with, and even cover up, shocking levels of abuse. How much more can you deprive a people of humanity, than claiming they don’t care about the most vulnerable in their communities?
But that’s what happens, even though it’s so far from the truth. The piece from Mundine in Monday’s Australian was even worse, because it claimed that the only media outlet invested in breaking this constructed silence was Sky News, and specifically the journalist Matt Cunningham and commentator Paul Murray, as if we are now supposed to celebrate any journalist who bothers to do their job.
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Mundine also seems to think that the only Aboriginal women speaking out about these supposed silences are former Northern Territory politician and Warlpiri woman Bess Price, and her daughter Jacinta Price.
But the issue here isn’t really about the supposed “silence” in our communities, but about the solutions, and so strong Aboriginal women like Judy Atkinson who work directly with Aboriginal women and children to propose solutions that do not fit with the draconian, paternalistic positions of right-wing commentators, are overshadowed.
To simplify a very complicated area, Aboriginal family violence is very different from domestic violence within non-Indigenous communities. It comes from a different place, from a different history, and therefore, will require different solutions.
While mainstream commentators and feminists talk about domestic violence in the context of the criminal justice system for their own communities, they don’t understand that for Aboriginal women, the criminal justice system can be just as violent, and these high rates of incarceration actually create and drive new forms of violence. So while the solution seems to be locking up more blackfellas, while it is overwhelmingly focused on “punishment”, the reality is far more complex.
History has shown us that locking up more Aboriginal men has meant higher rates of violence, and also has led to the over-incarceration of Aboriginal women – who are the fastest growing incarcerated demographic in this country.
In 1992, when the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was handed down, the focus was not on family violence, except for an excerpt in volume five that found the death of Aboriginal women and constant assault of Aboriginal women and children far exceeded, in sheer numbers and the enormity of suffering, the problems that deaths in custody pose for men.
In fact, over half of the men who had died in custody were locked up for violent crime – 32% of the men were in crimes for sexual assault.
That was back in the late 80s and early 90s.
But there was another statistic – more than 40% of men who had died in custody had been subject to child removal policies. They were the victims of the Stolen Generations, boys who were ripped from their families and institutionalised, educated within a setting of state-sanctioned violence.
In an interview last year, Judy Atkinson told me that the men she worked with had “the highest level of shame of what they had done, but they particularly did not talk about what had been done to them.”
In 2008, Aboriginal woman Caroline Atkinson (daughter of Judy) published a devastating thesis in which she interviewed 58 Aboriginal men who were incarcerated for violent crimes.
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She found that the majority of those men had symptoms of PTSD suggesting that the “high rates of Aboriginal men being incarcerated for crimes of violence could be due to a history of widespread traumatic stressors that are being transmitted across the generations.”
I’m including this information not to excuse these men for their crimes, not to elevate their suffering over that of Aboriginal women – but to show that simply demonising Aboriginal men in the media, does not help Aboriginal women and children. In fact, it makes it worse. Mundine uses the example of Don Dale to claim that while Australians care about Aboriginal children being tortured behind bars, they are less likely to care about – or least too scared to talk about – the abuse of women at the hands of their partners.
But he fails to see outside of this silo, he does not explain that these issues are interconnected. He does not even attempt to broach the issue that we are locking up traumatised children, who go on to become traumatised adults and release this trauma through anger perpetrated against the very people they are supposed to honour and protect. He does not connect the violence within our communities to the ongoing, intergenerational trauma, even though it exists and is felt keenly across this country.
It is time to stop the blame game, to dismantle these artificial “silences” simply used as political weapons to slander our communities, and start working towards healing our communities and bring back control to a people who have had it ripped away from them.
Australia, Aboriginal, Violence