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An historic launch that promises to deliver for First Nations women and girls, and to contribute to systemic change

The Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute launched this week with a commitment to elevate the voices of First Nations women and girls in the halls of power.

The Institute will bring together First Nations researchers with communities to co-design initiatives for improving life outcomes and achieving “lasting change” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, reports Alison Barrett, who attended the launch online.


Alison Barrett writes:

In the wake of the Voice to Parliament referendum loss, the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute, with its name meaning ‘women’s voices’ in Bunuba language, is a “vital space” for dialogue, exploration and collaboration, according to outgoing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO.

Additionally, it is a place where First Nations women and philosophies “are at the heart of leading change and systemic shifts that can seriously contribute to Australian nation building”, Oscar said at the launch of the Institute and Change Agenda for First Nations Gender Justice on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country on Tuesday.

While the result of the referendum was a “blow” and a “significant lost opportunity”, Oscar said we need to co-create more spaces like Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute to elevate the voices of First Nations people and the incredible work already happening in communities.

The Institute and Change Agenda launch was hosted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in partnership with the ANU First Nations Portfolio and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, and supported by the National Indigenous Australians Agency, Oxfam Australia, the Paul Ramsay Foundation and Big hART arts and social change organisation. About 450 people attended in-person with another 300 online.

In her Welcome to Country, Dr Matilda House highlighted we were in the presence of notable first women including Oscar, the first woman to be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and Julia Gillard AC, the first female Prime Minister in Australia. Gillard attended in her role as Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.

The Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute, based at the Australian National University, is the culmination of conversations, advocacy, research and work with thousands of First Nations women and stakeholders since 2017, when Oscar launched the ‘women’s voices’ initiative, according to Master of Ceremonies Professor Larissa Behrendt OA.

“These conversations told us that First Nations women and girls want to see a genuine mechanism for our representation that legitimises our diversity and affirms our identities,” Behrendt said.

In opening remarks via a pre-recorded video, ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop said the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute will focus on First Nations-led research, policy and practice, which is required to achieve First Nations gender equality.

“The establishment of this Institute is an important step in Australia’s journey to being a just and equitable nation,” Bishop said.

 

Change agenda

Behrendt told the audience the Institute will sit alongside the first national framework developed to set out First Nations’ women’s goals and aspirations, the Change Agenda for First Nations Gender Justice – “the Blakprint for transformation”.

The Change Agenda defines how change can be made through a systems change measurement, evaluation and learning approach, and outlines the work of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute in driving the change.

An advisory group oversaw the development of the Change Agenda, which is grounded in the voices of First Nations women, girls and gender-diverse, Behrendt said.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney said in her opening remarks that this project is “truly ground-breaking”, allowing the voices of so many First Nations women and girls to be heard.

It has given an opportunity for women and girls to speak their truth – “and if Australia needs anything at the moment, it’s a bit of truth-telling”, the Minister said.

“The referendum was devastating, but you know what? You get up, shake yourself off. You look for silver linings and you move on. This [Wiyi Yani U Thangani] is a great example of moving on,” Burney said.

Oscar told the audience her “commitment from the outset was to elevate the voices of our women and girls and ensure they would be heard loud and clear in Australia’s halls of power, and decision-making arenas”.

Gillard highlighted the important role the Institute will play in ensuring a complete perspective is taken with their understanding of intersectionality.

“The women’s movement has not always been inclusive of all women…We want to leave that past behind and to have a present-day feminism and women’s movement that understands intersectionality, that embraces all voices,” she said.

The Institute is inclusive of cis, trans women, and gender-diverse and non-binary people.

Panel members. Photo by Alison Barrett

Community solutions

We were told the Institute will bring together First Nations researchers with communities to co-design initiatives for improving life outcomes and achieving “lasting change” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.

“The solutions are sitting in our communities,” Burney said, adding that all of us need to embrace that, listen to and trust what communities are saying.

Oscar added that the Change Agenda and Institute will support women deliver and create innovative initiatives on the ground that will improve generational community health and wellbeing.

This may include delivering maternal health practices, as well as the songs, foods and protocols that live within women and families, communities, language and cultural groups.

“I’ve always known that our women’s lives matter to the weaving together and functioning of healthy safe, caring, and engaged communities and societies,” Oscar said. “When we do come together collectively, we bring vision, compassion, and logic.”

About hope and the future

Burney said while everyone knows about the alarmingly disproportionate statistics around First Nations people’s health and wellbeing, this project is about “hope, and it’s about the future”.

Oscar added that the consultation and engagement process offered a “First Nations gender lens that explodes the narrow frame of deficit”.

“We are survivors, healers and nurturers, teachers, leaders, carers, business owners, CEOs, mothers and sisters and aunties, and the list goes on,” Oscar said.

“Our lived expertise and knowledge…are the solutions we need to transform conditions of deficit.”

The world will be better for embracing “our incredible uniqueness and abilities”, Oscar said.

There’s always a but

Gillard said she has seen a substantial change and better direction for women since her time in politics, both in Australia and around the world. We are seeing more focus on women’s economic empowerment, labour force diversity, and system changes to support women financially.

But, she said, we are also in a time where division, partisanship and fear are fostered, which could have detrimental impacts on gender equality.

This means finding “the collective will and engagement that we need to propel communities and societies to another round of inclusive change is getting harder and harder”, Gillard said.

Oscar spoke about the largely unrecognised care work of Indigenous women, as highlighted in recent research by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner’s office.

Given mainstream definitions of care do not incorporate the complex ways care is defined by First Nations women – including caring for communities, Country and culture, as well as people – the research emphasised a new approach is needed.

Oscar told attendees at the launch that the Institute will work on redefining care, and providing evidence to policy makers on how this work can be better recognised and remunerated.

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