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Australia Continues to Fail Indigenous Women

As Australia celebrates International Women's Day, Indigenous women still face disproportionately higher rates of domestic violence, sexual violence, and incarceration.
March 7, 2015, 5:18am

Image via WikiCommons

As Australia celebrates International Women's Day this March 8, local and international voices continue to condemn the lack of basic human rights for Indigenous women. Kirstie Parker is the co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples. She told VICE that she felt the work being done was failing to make a real impact. "Our women are way behind the eight-ball if you're talking about health, housing, education, safety and freedom from violence," she said. And despite efforts to cut the disparity, Parker is less than satisfied, saying "We're not seeing the sort of progress that we're going to need to see if we're going to close that gap."

According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in three Australian women are victims of domestic or sexual violence, while male violence is the biggest health risk for women between the ages of 15 and 44. As high as those figures are, the 2011 Universal Periodic Review found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic and family violence.

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The concern was in that year's United Nations Human Rights Council review of Australia's human rights protection. It recommended the Commonwealth consolidate its anti-discrimination laws on human rights, sex, race, age and disability to address citizens experiencing multiple forms of discrimination. They highlighted Indigenous women who encounter racial and sexual discrimination, and called for better anti-discrimination legislation to protect them.

While Australia accepted this recommendation, four years later it's yet to be implemented.

"There is currently no remedy for intersecting and compounding forms of discrimination that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face," said Shannon Williams from the Indigenous Women's Legal Program of Women's Legal Services NSW.

Williams is concerned about multiple discriminations these women are up against. "They may also face further discrimination on the basis of age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status," she told VICE. "Challenging and trying to do something to stop discrimination is a task for all of us every day of the year."

The Australian Women Against Violence Alliance reported in its pre-budget submission in 2015-2016 that the cost of domestic violence on Australia's economy is around $13.6 billion and estimated to rise to $15.6 billion by 2021-22. At that time, it's estimated violence in Indigenous communities will constitute $2.2 billion of that figure if more assertive action isn't taken.

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But Parker reports that change can only happen when Indigenous women's voices are adequately represented in the management of their lives. "We need to see much more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women taking part in the design and delivery of the support services for our women," she said. Adding that if the women affected were involved in support and preventive services they might start to see a change. Although she added, "that change is taking a long time to come."

A 2009 Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into Indigenous people's access to justice showed between 2000 and 2008, the imprisonment rate of Indigenous women has increased by 46 percent. It dwarfed the 27 percent increase for Indigenous men.

Although the statistics show the need for legal services, a 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey showed only 20 percent of Indigenous people had used legal services. The commission expressed concern that Indigenous women faced bigger difficulties in gaining legal representation. It said offenders were more eligible for legal aid through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services because they came to the attention of the services program faster. Thus occupying them with the offenders and not the victim.

Ms Williams reiterates the breakdown saying, "The experience of the legal system for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has been a negative, confusing and disempowering one."

She continues that it is vital that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women not only know their rights, but also that they have access to culturally safe, trauma informed services that provide ongoing holistic support.

Parker reiterates the need for Indigenous women to get involved in creating such services. However, according to her, that still seems a long way away, saying "It's only when our backs are to the wall, truly to the wall, that you start to see the kernels of the society that we could become."

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