A recent Australian Bureau of Statistics analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s experiences of family and domestic violence is important, but has significant gaps and omissions, according to researcher Marlene Longbottom.
The ABS survey findings are of particular significance for medical professionals and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, she writes below.
Marlene Longbottom writes:
The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently released details of their latest analysis on the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), which revealed 1 in 10 Indigenous women experienced family and domestic violence in the 12 months prior to being surveyed in 2014-15.
However, there are some limitations with the data.
The analysis does not provide a complete picture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s experience of family and domestic violence. While the survey provides an indication of Indigenous women’s experiences of violence quantitatively, it is important to acknowledge that there is under reporting of violence by Indigenous people, as was recently recognised by Antoinette Braybrook.
Data sources such as the NATSISS and the Personal Safety Survey (2016), for instance, aggregate data as a collective of the self-reported experiences of violence of survivors.
While they include details of gender and ethnicity of the survivors, they do not identify the ethnicity of the people who perpetrate violence. The gender of people who perpetrate violence can be identified, as stated in the NATSISS, as being predominantly male partners; however, ethnicity by gender is unknown.
Throughout my research and extensive searching of the literature, I have identified this omission as a wider problem. There is a perception that Indigenous women are solely in intra-racial relationships with Indigenous men; however, clearly inter-racial relationships exist. Additionally these relationships occur with both Indigenous women and men.
The assumption that Indigenous women are solely partnered with Indigenous men pathologises and racialises the discourse, putting forward the view that Indigenous men are the perpetrators of violence.
This absolves non-Indigenous men from accountability and responsibility for the violence inflicted upon Indigenous women.
To ensure an accurate picture of the current state of violence and its impact on Indigenous communities collectively, the NATSISS and other national surveys could modify questions in the future to reflect genders and ethnicity for both victim survivors and those whom perpetrate violence.
Another area of missing data includes the experiences of intimate partner violence within the LGBTQI+ community.
In order to develop policy and respond adequately at the service delivery level, the assumption that relationships are heteronormative, that being of a male-female binary, excludes people whose experiences may be similar or different, and are also vitally important to understand.
Focus on physical violence
The NATSISS uses data where Indigenous women have self-reported experiences of physical violence.
Omitting other typologies of violence further reinforces the view that violence is only physical, often resulting in injuries that are seen as bruises or broken bones. This conceals the insidious nature of violence that manifests in different ways.
Intimate partner violence often starts through coercive control, progressing to other forms such as psychological, emotional, mental, financial and sexual violence or rape.
In my work as a researcher, I have spoken to Indigenous women, who have disclosed coercive control early in the relationship and over time this progressively became physical or of a sexual nature. I have also heard from Indigenous women who have stated that at the commencement of a relationship they experienced sexual violence or were raped.
Thus there is a need to bring forward and discuss the issue further, even assisting in increasing the community’s knowledge about the various typologies of violence.
Definitions of terms
There is a need to understand the defining terms around family and domestic violence.
Family violence may be interpreted as that which is experienced by those in relationships within family networks or close friendships, while domestic violence is usually related to those in an intimate relationship that is often partnered.
As reported in the NATSISS, the people perpetrating violence were most often the male partners. However, these roles have changed with women resisting violence and who also use violence against men.
These definitions are important to clarify so that an accurate representation of the experiences of violence within the community is better understood.
Mistrust of systems and support services
The NATSISS also provides details of the experiences of Indigenous women and their encounters with service providers including police and health systems, where they feel a level of distrust.
In my experience, I have found the four most vital services during a crisis, such as the police, housing, health and financial aid, are sites where Indigenous women have experienced racism and other forms of discrimination.
On a positive note, the data suggest that Indigenous women who experience family and domestic violence trust their doctor. This could be a safer option to report violence.
Despite the reluctance of some doctors in responding to disclosures of violence, for safety reasons, at times a woman may feel as though this is the only trusted person to whom they can disclose.
For Indigenous communities, the interconnectedness of familial relationships can become quite complex, where the person perpetrating the violence has a large network of family and friends, particularly if an Indigenous woman is seeking to plan to leave a violent relationship. Survivors can become isolated and often distrusting of services and people, thus remaining in a relationship that is toxic, unhealthy and violent.
These issues are multilayered and complex, and require acknowledgement. Evidence demonstrates that a woman’s life is most at risk from the point of informing a violent partner to up to six to twelve months after they leave.
Thus, health care providers can become sites of support, particularly for Indigenous women. As such, the Aboriginal Community Control Health Organisations are pivotal leaders in this field and have programs and support services that are culturally and community-based.
The data provided in the NATSISS are vital for research to inform policy and for community to develop responses to violence in Indigenous communities.
With some revisions of future surveys, a more complete understanding of the phenomena would assist.
• Marlene Longbottom recently completed a PhD on Aboriginal women’s experiences of interpersonal violence and the support services available in the Shoalhaven. She is the Aboriginal Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Health Services Research Institute (AHSRI) at the University of Wollongong. Her postdoctoral work is focused on a cross-national study that seeks to identify the systemic responses, including the enablers and challenges for Aboriginal Australians in New South Wales Australia and Native Hawaiians in Hawai’i, United States, who experience violence or trauma. Her work also seeks to contextualise and reframe the positioning of Indigenous women and men who have been misrepresented through a racialised ideology. Follow on Twitter: @MLongbottom13