Last week was a very important week for Aboriginal women, families and our communities.
We saw four brave Aboriginal women in Victoria speak out on the ABC's 7.30 Report about a senior Aboriginal male leader as the person responsible for sexual abuse against them as women and children.
The alleged perpetrator named in the program was Wayne Muir, the CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), a government-funded, community controlled service.
The claims relate to historical sexual assaults and misconduct, which are alleged to have occurred between 1987 and 2003. Mr Muir has denied the claims, calling them “false and defamatory”. The day after the allegations aired, Mr Muir was stood down by his board.
According to Djirra, an Aboriginal domestic violence organisation released a statement in response to the allegations stating that "Aboriginal women who make the very difficult decision to come forward must be supported and kept safe. Family violence and sexual assault must be condemned by all parts of the community. No matter where our women are – at home or at work – any sort of behaviour that threatens them is completely unacceptable."
The board of ATSIC was largely male and they supported his [Geoff Clark] decision not to stand down...
These events echoed the very serious allegations of sexual assault made almost two decades ago that surrounded the former head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Geoff Clark.
Several women claimed that Geoff Clark had sexually assaulted them in the 1970s. At the time of the allegations, in 2001, the board of ATSIC was largely male and they supported his decision not to stand down, with Mr Clark arguing the women’s claims were politically motivated against him due to his support for a Treaty.
I believe the ATSIC board’s decision not to stand Mr Clark down was used by the Howard government to later disband ATSIC, a service established to progress Aboriginal self-determination. I was working for ATSIC at this time and I found the argument that the women were part of an agenda to get Geoff Clark because of his position on a ‘Treaty’ as disingenuous. The women’s claims were serious, and yet were not treated by the ATSIC Board as credible. This reflects the damaging effect that Aboriginal male dominant politics can have on Indigenous affairs.
Aboriginal women and men are showing a preparedness to take seriously, allegations of sexual assault.
I left ATSIC prior to Howard’s decision in 2004 as I felt I could not work in an environment that hypocritically denied and abused Aboriginal women’s human rights. The recent decision of the board of VALS to stand down Muir, however, indicates a changing climate in which Aboriginal women and men are showing a preparedness to take seriously, allegations of sexual assault.
As such, the recent statements on morning television that Invasion Day protesters have done nothing for victims of sexual abuse, is simply not true. There is no logic to the argument that Aboriginal people who seek a new national day — one that is not based on colonisation and dispossession — aren’t concerned with violence against Indigenous women and children in communities.
Aboriginal women know that the past is always present, including in the very high level of gender violence and oppressive male dominant community dynamics. The past is always present in a woman’s ability to protect her children when faced with systemic prejudice from the dominant culture.
Aboriginal women who defend themselves from violence may find no mercy...
Aboriginal women know if they seek help from the statutory agency it may not be given. Or worse, they may also find themselves being incarcerated for unpaid fines or held responsible for the violence against them with their children being removed and placed into white homes, where they may not be safe. Aboriginal women who defend themselves from violence may find no mercy from the courts with cruel inhumane punishment given as ‘justice’.
Increasingly, Aboriginal women are speaking out against men who sexually abused them as children. Last week in Perth the National Indigenous Critical Response Project launched Let Them Speak a documentary about four Aboriginal sisters from Leonora speaking out about sexual abuse they experienced. The film was launched at the same time as the report of the WA Coroner into the deaths of 12 Aboriginal youth in the Kimberley.
The Coroners investigation found the Aboriginal children who had ended their lives at very young ages were experiencing poverty, family violence and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse and government indifference. The Coroner made a number of adverse findings against the child welfare department that failed to act on allegations of violence, neglect, drug abuse in four of the suicide cases.
In one case, the relevant department delayed a mental health referral for a 12-year-old girl despite her family telling the police twice she wanted to take her life. She died on the same day that her appointment with a visiting mental health professional was cancelled by the service for a second time.
We simply cannot accept the imposition of non-Aboriginal government processes which consistently fail women, children and families, particularly through denial of respect for our human rights, including our right to cultural integrity and healing ways.
Importantly, the Coroner acknowledged that we must address this crisis within a framework that supports Aboriginal self-determination. We simply cannot accept the imposition of non-Aboriginal government processes which consistently fail women, children and families, particularly through denial of respect for our human rights, including our right to cultural integrity and healing ways.
Self- determination, as recognised by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, affirms the leadership and knowledge of Indigenous people and the necessity of ending the paternalism of past government policies, including the cultural genocide practices in past and present child removal.
We require urgent support for Aboriginal Healing centres, women and men’s groups, respected elders and traditional healers. Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing and healing means healing on Country, in nature with our land and culture and through our own significant practices such as healing arts.
Recognition and respect for Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing, for cultural safety in all aspects of government and non-government services is critical to improving Aboriginal health and human rights.
We need government to finally listen to Aboriginal women who are increasingly using their voices to end sexual violence and protect women and children.
...as Aboriginal women bravely speak, we must make sure they are cared for and protected from any further hurt, abuse and trauma.
At the same time as Aboriginal women bravely speak, we must make sure they are cared for and protected from any further hurt, abuse and trauma. We know that many women and girls cannot speak as speaking can place their safety at risk, whether that be risk of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual harm.
Restoration and healing for women and children is critical to our healing as Indigenous peoples and nations and a matter of human rights of the utmost importance.
Dr Hannah McGlade is the Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, Western Australia. She is the author of "Our Greatest Challenge, Aboriginal Children and Human Rights" which received the 2013 Stanner Award for excellence in Aboriginal research. In 2016 Dr McGlade was appointed the Senior Indigenous Fellow at the United Nations OHCHR. She has led the establishment of legal support services for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander victims of family violence and sexual assault in Western Australia.