The Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s voices Bunuba language) Project has elevated the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls across Australia.
With the project’s final report delivered to Federal Parliament last week, Dr Tess Ryan explores the importance of the initiative and the need for greater support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are not just the backbone of communities; they are the blood that circulates through a system of culture and identity,” she writes below.
Tess Ryan writes:
We all began with the mothers who raised us, the aunties who fought for us, the sissies who share with us.
In 2017, the Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO. began a project that sought to capture the lived experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s voices Bunuba language) Project tells important stories in exploring the essential role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played, and continue to play, at the community, local, and national level.
It was pertinent that this project commenced just before the 2018 NAIDOC Week – with the theme ‘Because of her, we can’ – as it highlighted the grounded strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls and their contribution to the power they give to many inside and outside of their communities.
The project travelled across rural, remote and urban Australia to gather their stories and listen to their challenges, aspirations, and strengths that they had seen in themselves and of their surroundings.
All of us, mainly all the women, we are the ones that are the backbone of everything … it doesn’t matter where. We are the backbone of our families, we are the backbone that everyone depends on to get things done.” Cairns women
Structural support needed
The report emphasises that many women and girls face individual and collective journeys involving challenges, aspirations and beliefs, which firmly supports all aspects of daily lives.
There is a connectedness to these stories, and in addressing what is needed for these women, investment is required. Investing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls invests further in overall society.
This has been seen throughout the decades where many pivotal women, coming from community beginnings, have created great change. Examples include Mum Shirl, who advocated for an Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern and an Aboriginal Legal Service, as well as contributing greatly to overall social welfare changes in Australian society.
Within the conversations with the women and girls who spoke up for the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, there could be another Mum Shirl, or another Pat Anderson AO, or countless other unknown individuals who contribute their lives to building better, under difficult circumstances.
Yet the structural forces seen by these women and girls overwhelmingly determines their lives, either strengthening or diminishing their unique capabilities.
While some individual behaviours also have great impact, it is the overburdening structural behaviours that women and girls must deal with daily. Access to services and how those services are run can have great detrimental impact. Through their voices, it is apparent that more work in providing better structural support is essential.
Better education, awareness, preventive policies and measures rather [than] reactive … System is a barrier … We want culturally appropriate service, non-restrictive service profession. Looking at whole aspects of that women’s voices. It needs to be prioritised in a holistic sense. Governance and oversight from leaders, Aboriginal elected body. Solution driven by community with government to drive.” Canberra women
Another finding from the report posited that First Nations women and girls want systems and services to be preventative, place-based, culturally safe, healing-oriented and trauma-informed. We have seen previous examples of how place-based solutions in particular areas contributes to ongoing community empowerment.
Culturally safe practices for women and girls must be available to not only survive, but thrive and heal in the most powerful of ways.
“Don’t you think that there is something drastically wrong when we’re in the year 2018 and the deterioration of our people has just tripled? We’re missing something somewhere along the line … [we need to be] putting preventative measures in place and really educating our people with empowerment to be able to lend to their own understanding of directing their own futures.” Brewarrina women
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s leadership and participation regularly seems to be overlooked outside of their own communities. Yet within those communities, it is accepted and embraced as an underpinning of cultural values and beliefs.
We need to support First Nations women and girls’ leadership and participation in all decisions that impact their lives as they honour those who have gone before them and those who will follow.
We all have this need collectively [for self-care]. For me, it is a strong belief that every time I feel like I have a healing moment it will help my daughter etc, but will also help my ancestors. Strong belief that they are heavily invested in my doing well. This is the most powerful thing I have done—to be honest about my life and experiences. All the women that have gone before us—they were enough. We have to believe that we are enough.” Hobart women
The recommendations of that report ask for a National Action Plan on advancing the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. How this National Plan would look should be led by strong representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been doing some of the heavy lifting in areas of need for their communities for decades.
Recommending a National summit and establishing a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women and Girls Advisory Body is another pivotal requirement stemming from the project. A summit that heralds the narratives of women, and the work that they have done and continue to do in supporting their communities contributes also to investment, support and empowering in women’s leadership at the ground level.
The ongoing work in acknowledging and empowering these women can only happen while protecting, supporting, and reviving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices and knowledge systems. It is these very systems of knowledge and cultural heritage that provide the fuel for these women and girls to invest in their country, their people and themselves.
Recognising intergenerational trauma
The project did not ignore the pain that has been felt due to intergenerational trauma and what healing work is required to assist in lessening that pain. Trauma informed healing processes for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is of great importance.
The report could not dismiss the pervading issue of racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and the broader First Nations community, as this too creates barriers to the continued strengthening and empowerment of individuals.
It is the truth telling that must occur in Australia that will bring about change, and First Nation’s women and girls are in the frontlines of that change.
Local and regional focused engagement as a recommendation suggests that, like placed-based solutions, the ongoing commitment to building relationships that build up communities at local levels is imperative.
The final recommendation of community safety is essential to the ongoing structural and behavioural work that needs to take place to protect these women.
Too often we see police attend family violence situations only to then arrest the victim for an outstanding warrant or remove children for their apparent safety. Great damage has been caused by ongoing interventions brought on by government, and therefore recommendations ask for First Nation women and girls to be kept safe in the immediate and long term.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are not just the backbone of communities; they are the blood that circulates through a system of culture and identity. They get up and do the work each day to build better. It is time we listen, acknowledge and support them in that fight.
Dr Tess Ryan is a strong Biripi woman with a PhD on Indigenous women’s leadership in Australia. Her multi-disciplinary work involves Indigenous women, media representation, Indigenous research, health, and leadership. Dr Ryan works at The Australian Catholic University and is the President of The Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Association.
• Croakey acknowledges and thanks donors to our public interest journalism funding pool for supporting this article.