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An open letter in response to the lack of public concern or response to the killings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women

Introduction by Croakey: Senior Aboriginal academics have called for the rights and concerns of Indigenous women to be central to national discussions about violence against women, and have called on Our Watch to appoint an Indigenous co-chair, alongside the current chair, Natasha Stott Despoja.

The open letter, authored by Associate Professor Hannah McGlade, Professor Bronwyn Carlson and Dr Marlene Longbottom, contrasts the national attention to disclosures of sexual violence by white women “whereas sexual violence against Indigenous women and girls is being normalised and rendered invisible”.

The letter can be signed here. Signatories include Dr Judy Atkinson, Professor Marcia Langton, Amy McQuire, Melissa Lucashenko and Professor Sandy O’Sullivan.

(This article was updated on 10 March with a response from Our Watch).


Hannah McGlade, Bronwyn Carlson and Marlene Longbottom write:

Sexual violence in Australia is deeply grounded in our colonial history which condoned systemic rape and sexual abuse of Indigenous women. Aboriginal women and girls could be murdered with impunity by settlers. White women were complicit in this abuse, ascribing to the racist colonial narrative that denigrated Indigenous women as less than human.

It’s important that Indigenous and non-Indigenous women come together in solidarity and respond in a fair and respectful manner to each other in relation to our efforts to end violence against women. We do not see this happening.

We the undersigned are concerned to see that disclosures of sexual violence by white women in Australia gain national attention and responsiveness, including from bodies such as Our Watch, whereas sexual violence against Indigenous women and girls is being normalised and rendered invisible.

The movement Say Her Name! highlights the lack of attention and neglect for the value of Black women’s lives, it is very much the case in Australia in regard to Indigenous women.

We call for justice for Indigenous women who are being murdered in this country – their deaths are barely accorded a public response and racism has been apparent from many cases involving white male perpetrators whose skin colour affords them privilege in the legal system.

We know that ONE in THREE Indigenous women and girls will be raped in their lifetime. And yet the state and federal governments, are failing to respond to this grave situation and refusing to heed the advice of several UN treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), that a specific national action plan on violence to Indigenous women and children is warranted.

We also know that non-Indigenous women are also pushing for new laws in relation to coercive control, yet we know that Indigenous women are treated as aggressive and angry in accordance with racist stereotypes and may be penalised by such laws.

The ABC’s recent Q & A program ‘About all women’ excluded Indigenous women. In fact an Indigenous scholar and colleague, Associate Professor Chelsea Watego was invited to be part of the Q&A panel, only to later be informed that she was no longer required. In doing so, this highlights the ongoing prejudice and exclusionary practices that Indigenous women experience today. This reifies the fact that Indigenous women and much less their voices are never given a platform to speak. If we do, it is usually in response to a lack of representation or the opportunity.

The chairperson on Our Watch, Natasha Stott Despoja, has been outspoken in the media in relation to the murder of Hannah Clarke and the abuse of Brittany Higgins, but she will not respond to the horrific murder and case of Stacey Thorne and her unborn child.

We are tired of this double standard and hypocrisy that infers and perpetuates the life and value of a white woman is greater than that of Indigenous women. We believe that it is now time for Our Watch to seriously re-evaluate their position as a national leader in the primary prevention of violence against women and their children and particularly given their lack of focus on the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and their children. Our Watch advertises their “Change the Story” framework which is about everyone having a role to play in challenging gender inequality. We call for this to include Indigenous women and we therefore demand that Our Watch appoint an Indigenous co-chair.

Violence and sexual abuse of women is grounded in power relations and inequality. The dynamic of racism continues to remain, within the violence against women sector and more broader, undermines all efforts to address violence against women. Particularly violence which Indigenous women experience.

We remind Australia of the historic UN Resolution of 2016 to “Accelerate efforts to eliminate violence against women: preventing and responding to violence against women, girls, including Indigenous women and girls”. We must be treated respectfully as an equal partner in all efforts to end violence against women in this country.

We are sovereign to this country and refuse to have our voices silenced. In one way or another, will be heard!

The authors of this letter can be contacted by email:
Associate Professor Hannah McGlade: mcgladeh@bigpond.com
Professor Bronwyn Carlson: Bronwyn.carlson@mq.edu.au
Dr Marlene Longbottom: marlenel@uow.edu.au


Response from Our Watch

Our Watch, through our constitution and day to day work, is committed to preventing violence against all women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who experience disproportionate rates of violence and for whom violence is often more prevalent and more severe. 

Too often, the national conversation about violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is sidelined. They continue to receive a fraction of the media coverage and public indignation they deserve.

We take our national leadership role very seriously – we know we can’t do this work alone, that working in partnership with others is critical. This is something Our Watch is committed to and we will continue to not only listen and consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and experts but take action.

Gender inequality, which drives violence, cannot be separated from other forms of oppression such as racism and the ongoing impacts of colonisation and dispossession.

In 2018, Our Watch launched Changing the Picture, which sits alongside our national framework, Change the Story, and contains a set of clear actions that are needed to address the drivers of this violence.

Informed by extensive consultation, it shows many different stakeholders – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, government and non-government, across diverse settings and geographical contexts – what they can do and how they can contribute.

When the issue of violence against women is in the news and part of a national conversation, journalists often contact Our Watch for our perspective given our expertise in prevention.

While we are not able to comment on individual cases that involve a legal process, we do provide commentary on the work that needs to happen to prevent violence against women from happening in the first place.

We also acknowledge tragic deaths on social media when they happen. We stand in solidarity with and acknowledge all women who experience violence, including Stacey Thorne and her unborn child.