Earlier this year, Melbourne resident and Arrernte woman Celeste Liddle started going through various polls and counting the number of Aboriginal women killed by violence, pinpointing remote communities and women who went unnamed to identify them.
So far this year, she has counted nine women, and recorded them on her Counting Dead Aboriginal Women blog. In many of these cases the perpetrator has been a family member. She believes this estimate to be conservative, and points to the cultural taboo of speaking of the dead as a reason the problem has not received enough attention.
“If women weren’t going to be named, if the victim’s named weren’t going to be in the forefront of our memories, then they need to be recognised in some sort of tangible way, so they couldn’t be forgotten,” she said.
“It was always stated that one woman a week dies as a result of violence against women,” she said, but we’re actually averaging two women per week in Australia, and 18 per cent of them have been Aboriginal which is extraordinary.”
“Violence is getting worse.”
She cites the disparity between the government attention to terrorism, which has been responsible for no deaths this year, and women who have died as a result of family violence, of which there have been forty-eight in 2015.
“We’re losing so many people,” she said. “Something needs to change.”
Shirlene Campbell of Alice Springs has witness this violence first-hand. Her aunt was murdered by her partner in December 2014. She had been playing football with her children and came home to the news that there was a domestic dispute nearby, and then saw her aunt’s body lying on the ground.
“There were families there,” she recalls. ”They could have stopped it. No one wanted to interrupt and control it. They just thought ‘oh two drunken people, let em go for it, they’re not going to harm anyone’ but they didn’t think the reality of what’s going to happen.”
Roughly 50 per cent of all domestic and family violence goes unreported. In the indigenous community, that number is predicted to be much higher.
Shirlene believes a lack of trust between women of her community and law enforcement contributes to the low incidence of reportage.
“She didn’t trust them at the time,” said Shirlene. “It’s like she didn’t trust anyone.”
“She was always saying that if she [did] get the police involved and the husband got locked up then the families were all going to look towards her. And that was her main fear.”
Shirlene was instrumental in setting up a women’s Safety Group on Alice Springs after losing her aunt, and is one of many women in the area taking a grassroots movement against family violence. The female presidents from all the nearby town camps have committed to report domestic disputes to the police to prevent the kind of tragedy that befell Shirlene’s aunty.
“I’ve actually got a voice,” she said. “I can actually stand up for our women and kids.”
She believes that for things to change, the perpetrators of family violence need to be part of the solution. Her husband works for a program called Men’s Behaviour Change.
Maree Corbo also works for the program, which is the first of its kind in the region.
“We try to make sure that the men are actually growing and developing in their understanding of family violence,” she said. “The fact that they’re coming of their own fruition says a lot of them wanting something to change.”
A member of the program, Nathan, credits it with helping him change his attitude.
“I’ve realised that being violent all the time just gets you nowhere,” he said. “It just locks you up.”
“I am a kind person. I do want what’s right for people,” said Nathan. “I know I’ve done some stupid things, and I’m trying to change that.”
All of the people involved maintain that it is critical that solutions come from the communities themselves working with law enforcement, rather than being imposed from the outside in.
“Our issues are continually discussed by people who have no link to them whatever,” said Celeste. “They’re standing on the outside looking in.”
“1967 was the height of the women’s movement,” said Maree. “And where were Aboriginal women in all of that? Trying to get recognised.”