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In calling for action on violence against women, we must also address structural violence

*** Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and details of people who have passed *** 

The death in custody of Heather Calgaret, a proud Yamatji, Noongar, Wongi and Pitjantjatjara woman, underscores the importance of addressing all forms of violence against women, and especially the structural violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, reports Marie McInerney.


Marie McInerney writes:

An urgent online meeting of National Cabinet on Wednesday announced a range of measures to address escalating concerns about gender-based violence, with an estimated 28 women having died, allegedly at the hands of men’s violence, so far this year.

The deaths prompted rallies across Australia calling for urgent action. The Federal Government committed $925.2 million over five years to support women to leave unsafe partners and announced a suite of measures to address easy access to pornography for children and young people and tackle extreme online misogyny that is fueling harmful attitudes towards women.

National Cabinet agreed to a number of priorities building on efforts underway under the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032, including strengthening accountability for perpetrators, early intervention with high-risk perpetrators and serial offenders, and a bigger focus on prevention.

However, public health leaders have raised concerns that the announcement failed to address the role of alcohol in fueling men’s violence.

“We will continue to call on governments to ensure that women and children who have shared their experience of alcohol as a driver of violence are heard,” said Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) CEO Caterina Giorgi.

National Cabinet also pledged to maintain a focus on missing and murdered First Nations women and children, and the impact of domestic and family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

But violence is not only inflicted by individuals.

A coronial inquiry held this week in Naarm/Melbourne into the death in custody of Aboriginal woman Heather Calgaret in 2021 has highlighted the need also for governments to consider the role of their own policies and agencies in systemic and structural violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Gathering in sorrow

As calls for action on violence against women dominated headlines, the family and friends of Heather Calgaret gathered in sorrow for a smoking ceremony outside the Victorian Coroner’s Court.

They were preparing for what has become too common a grim and tragic undertaking in Australia — an inquest into the death of an Aboriginal woman in custody.

A proud Yamatji, Noongar, Wongi and Pitjantjatjara woman, Ms Calgaret died, aged just 31, at Sunshine Hospital in Naarm/Melbourne in November 2021 after being found in a critical condition at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre Prison by her sister Suzzane who was also in the women’s prison.

Six months pregnant when she went into prison in July 2019, Ms Calgaret’s application to have her baby with her in prison under the Living with Mum Program was rejected.

She was also later denied parole, for a reason that keeps so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison – because she did not have suitable accommodation to go to.

“Five weeks later, Heather collapsed and she never recovered. She was 12 weeks from completing her whole sentence,” the court was told.

It was, as Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services (VALS) CEO Nerita Waight tweeted, a reminder that Aboriginal and Torres Strait women also experience brutal treatment by the state, that it is not only male violence we must address, but ongoing systemic and structural violence that manifests particularly in deaths in custody and is a big test for health and justice systems in Australia.

As Sharon Lacey, Counsel assisting the coroner, said at the opening of Ms Calgaret’s hearing, an inquest into the death of a person in custody is particularly significant because, at the time of death, a prisoner is unable to avail themselves of medical treatment.

“A prisoner’s health and wellbeing exists at the mercy of prison officers and prison medical staff, at the policies which direct staff conduct and the resources and the services that are available,” she said.

“When an Aboriginal person dies in custody, we as a community are reminded of the inequalities that persist between the health, welfare and opportunities of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“When an Aboriginal person dies in custody, we are reminded of the Royal Commission (into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody), we are reminded of the decades of discussions, roundtables, policies, and commitments, despite which the statistics remain disheartening.”

“Live up to your words”

On the same day as the coronial inquest opened, an historic event on the other side of Melbourne’s CBD also provided reminders of the ongoing impacts of colonisation, the many recommendations on justice and equity that lie dusty and unimplemented on shelves, and the failure of governments to address policies, including ‘tough on crime’ approaches, that contribute to ongoing harms.

The appearance of Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan at the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Victoria’s Truth-telling body, marked the first time that an Australian head of state has appeared before such an inquiry.

Her witness statement acknowledged grave injustices – “The violence. The murder. The brutality. The families cleaved apart. Robbed of their culture and their connection to Country”.

“Our people have been waiting over 200 years for this day to come,” Commissioner Travis Lovett, a Kerrupmara Gunditjmara Traditional Owner, told the Premier, welcoming her testimony.

But it came just weeks after the State Government deeply disappointed the Commission and other Indigenous groups (including VALS and the VACCHO) by rejecting three key recommendations from Yoorrook’s year-long inquiry into systemic injustice within Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice systems.

As the ABC reported, Allan was pressed by the Yoorrook Commission on whether all parts of government were doing what they could today to overturn legacies of systemic racism and disenfranchisement.

“Your words will live on public record for generations to come,” Commissioner Eleanor Bourke said. “When you leave here today I ask you to live up to your words with your actions.”

“We are heartbroken”

The coronial inquiry into Ms Calgaret’s death, expected to run for four weeks, opened with a recording of the powerful and mournful Pitjantjara song by singer-songwriter Frank Yamma, who was her grandmother’s cousin and whom she called Pop.

In a heartbreaking family impact statement from Heather’s mother, Aunty Jenny Calgaret, read on her behalf by Heather’s nephew, the inquest heard that Ms Calgaret was the middle sister of 11 siblings, mother to “four beautiful children”, and a “caring, loving soul who was bubbly, funny, always laughing and cracking jokes”.

“Heather’s children meant the world to her,” he read, saying she was “an old mother hen type person” who had a big heart and supported everyone around her.

“Heather brought so much love, joy and care to our family,” he read. “She was the rock of our family. We are heartbroken by her death.”

“Life is precious, Heather’s life was precious. It was a blessing and a gift to us and it shouldn’t have been taken away from her. The pain of losing Heather has caused complete heartache for our whole family and Heather’s community. Nothing is the same without her. Nothing will bring her back.”

Poignantly and pointedly, the statement noted that Ms Calgaret was born in 1991, the same year that the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down and said that she “may still be with us today if those recommendations had been implemented properly”.

With a further 563 Indigenous deaths in custody since the Royal Commission, Coroner Sarah Gebert echoed the concern later, saying “we are all struggling to understand how we find ourselves in this position once again so many decades later”.

Lacey reminded the court that Indigenous people in Australia are incarcerated at the highest rate of any people in the world. “Aboriginal people die in custody at alarming rates because Aboriginal people are in custody at alarming rates,” she said.

Inquest to probe healthcare, parole

VALS represents the families of several Aboriginal families whose loved ones have died in custody over the last five years and has been supporting Ms Calgaret’s family.

Many of the factors involved in these losses are “repeated over and over”, it said: “lack of equivalent healthcare services, harsh bail and parole systems, over-policing of Aboriginal people, and poor oversight and accountability mechanisms in the justice system”.

VALS said “almost all the cases it has been involved in include issues relating to substandard healthcare provided in prisons”, noting that last year the Victorian Government announced public services would replace private healthcare providers in women’s prisons “in response to scathing findings” about the death of Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Nelson.

“As was recently identified in a ground-breaking report from the Victorian Ombudsman, prison healthcare is continually failing to meet the needs of Aboriginal people with evidence showing they suffer worse and more complex health outcomes than non-Aboriginal people in prison and in the community,” it said.

The Labor Government’s tough-on-crime agenda has been criticised for Aboriginal women being the fastest growing demographic in Victoria’s prisons — up 400 percent over a decade.

VALS says the state’s parole system, which will be examined as part of the coronial inquiry, has become “increasingly punitive and difficult” over the past two decades.

Many people are denied parole because of lack of housing availability, issues with the way the Adult Parole Board operate, lack of rehabilitation programs in prison and excessive delays.

“They are often mothers and primary carers,” VALS said. “They are often dealing with financial insecurity, homelessness, and health conditions. Many are victim-survivors of family violence. They needed support services, not a prison cell.