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Truth telling and self-determination are critical for addressing violence against First Nations women and children

Introduction by Croakey: A major investigation into violence against First Nations women and children will soon be released, almost two years after the Senate referred an inquiry to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee.

The inquiry into Missing and Murdered First Nations Women and Children has since published 87 submissions and held multiple hearings.

Jade Bradford, a Ballardong Noongar freelance journalist based in Western Australia, has been following the inquiry closely, and undertaken a thematic analysis of some of the key issues raised by submissions.

The analysis below is based upon the first 44 submissions to the inquiry, and identifies over-arching themes to help contextualise coverage and discussions of the inquiry’s report and findings. On 25 June, the Committee’s reporting date was extended to 15 August 2024.


Jade Bradford writes:

While many different organisations and individuals from different places and contexts have made submissions to the inquiry, some clear themes emerge from a systematic view.

Below is an overview of three underlying themes.

1. Truth telling is foundational

Many submissions emphasise the importance of truth telling as part of the efforts to prevent and address violence against First Nations women.

This includes truth telling about the connections between colonial violence and the violence experienced by First Nations women.

“The cycles of violence that exist today are a consequence of colonisation.” Submission 11, Boorndawan Willam Aboriginal Healing Service.

“Recognition of this historical context, and how those experiences continue to undermine safety must be contextualised and addressed appropriately; led by survivors.” Submission 10, the Healing Foundation.

Throughout the submissions, truth telling is mentioned as the gateway towards understanding the devastating impacts of systemic racism. Submission 8 recommended “the development of shared understandings about the ongoing harms of colonial racism and violence, and the different levels of racism ranging from interpersonal to systemic”.

A concerning number of mentions were made highlighting the impacts of racist and culturally unsafe policing and justice systems on First Nations people. Within these submissions, specific recommendations were made to improve cultural safety in these systems.

In Submission 7, the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) cited research suggesting that the decision made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women on whether or not to disclose violence was directly related to the cultural safety of services, and said “the inquiry into Queensland Police Service [identified it] is not culturally safe, preventing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experiencing domestic and family violence from accessing their services”.

Submission 25, from the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), cited a study showing that in a high proportion of fatal domestic violence cases involving Aboriginal women, police either did not provide effective assistance or failed to respond to calls for assistance.

When police did respond, this often led to impacts stemming from racism within the police system inflicted on the victims. As outlined in Submission 24 (Northern Territory Women’s Legal Services), some of the dire wide-ranging impacts for Aboriginal women of being misidentified by police as the perpetrator of abuse include removal of children, trauma to children, incarceration and criminal charges.

Submission 25 said police responses to violence experienced by Aboriginal women and children require structural and cultural reform, and that Aboriginal women and children “deserve to be believed, respected and supported by Australia’s police forces and there must be accountability when this does not occur”.

“To put it simply, Aboriginal women and children are less likely to receive effective support from police – even during times of crisis.” Submission 25, from the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT).

Many submissions also highlighted racism within the media and the media’s failure properly cover violence against First Nations women, rendering the crisis invisible, impacting policy responses, and often amplifying the voices of police and criminal justice sources rather than survivors and communities.

“The mainstream media further compounds the issues. It is often silent when it comes to reporting missing and murdered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, or when reporting does take place, our peoples are often framed through deficit narratives which place us as the problem, as deserving of violence, or immorally depicting violence as inherent to our cultures. There is rarely public outrage or outcry in response to the devastating experiences of our women and children.” Submission 8, Partnership for Justice in Health.

“When interacting with Aboriginal people, families, and communities, it is important that media professionals are respectful and mindful of cultural practices and obligations. Reporting would be improved by including more experts and survivors, rather than police and justice system sources.” Submission 33, Domestic Violence Legal Service and Northern Territory Legal Aid.

The submissions echoed calls for truth telling about the long and ongoing history of policy failure and structural violence inflicted by governments and services.

“Experiences of structural violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation perpetrated by State actors against First Nations people often means there is a reluctance and mistrust by First Nations women in reporting gendered violence and abuse perpetrated against First Nations women and children to police and other government departments.” Submission 21, Women’s Legal Service NSW.

“The over representation of missing and murdered First Nations women and children provides further validation that the justice and health systems – the systems primarily designed to care and protect all Australian citizens, are failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Time and time again, our people are criminalised or perceived as the problem while authorities working in our public institutions are not held to account for failing to do their jobs to care, protect and serve.” Submission 8, Partnership for Justice in Health.

Submissions also highlighted the importance of truth telling for justice, reparations, acknowledgement and healing.

Submission 37 (Domestic Violence NSW) urged the introduction of an honour roll to acknowledge missing and murdered First Nations women and children, the introduction of a specific day to remember, celebrate and mourn missing First Nations women and children, and a community remembrance fund for individuals/families and First Nations community organisations to enable community remembrance events for the missing and murdered First Nations women and children.

Submission 8 (Partnership for Justice in Health) called for, as a national priority, the “development and ongoing implementation of a coordinated, cohesive long-term approach to eliminating racism that centres our sovereignty and voices; provides a mechanism for truth telling and self-determination; and addresses the underlying interrelated causes that perpetuate violence against our women and children”.

“Truth telling is an important way society can acknowledge wrongdoings, its ongoing impacts and seek to avoid repeating the same mistakes.” Submission 10, the Healing Foundation.

2. Self-determination is critical

Another key theme across many submissions is the importance of self-determination in all responses, whether in prevention, or policy and service development and delivery. Respect for Indigenous Data Sovereignty Principles in data-collection and sharing was also stressed.

Many submissions also highlighted the importance of structural mechanisms to support self-determination, such as a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament as recommended in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and implementation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

“Wherever possible, violence-reduction strategies should be self-determined by First Nations communities, with sufficient resourcing provided by government to ensure community leaders can fully implement strategies. Untied grants should be supplied to communities to support the development and execution of self-determined community-led projects focussed on violence reduction led by Indigenous women.” Submission 2, Australian National University Law Reform and Social Justice Research Hub.

“Prevention, early intervention, response and recovery must all co-occur, or the cycle will not be broken. At every stage, the response must be Aboriginal-led, and strength based, for true healing to occur.” Submission 11, Boorndawan Willam Aboriginal Healing Service.

Many submissions stressed the importance of investment and support for the community controlled sector.

Submission 8 (Partnership for Justice in Health) recommended “expanding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled service sector and ensuring the delivery of place-based, culturally safe and trauma-informed wrap around service models, to ensure that our women, children and families receive support when they need it”.

“Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, especially Aboriginal community-controlled health services, should be recognised as preferred providers for government funded services to address family violence, in recognition of their greater service effectiveness, their higher levels of employment of Aboriginal women, and their formal structures for involving Aboriginal communities in general and women in particular in decision-making.” Submission 18, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.

3. Investment in social and cultural determinants of health is needed

Many submissions highlighted the importance of addressing the social determinants, especially poverty and housing, and a lack of cultural safety in policy and services.

“Access to secure housing is a major problem, particularly in regional and remote areas. Housing insecurity leaves all women vulnerable to the risk of victimisation, and this is especially so for First Nations women.” Submission 13, The North Queensland Women’s Legal Service.

“Increased investment in housing for both remote and urban areas as an important underpinning strategy to support women’s independence and address mental health and social and emotional wellbeing issues, including family violence.” Submission 18, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.

“Housing insecurity is a significant factor in First Nations women’s vulnerability to domestic and family violence. Apart from undue pressures due to the need to support homeless family members, it limits opportunities for First Nations women to escape abusive relationships.” Submission 38, First Nations Women’s Legal Services Queensland.

Submission 18 said action to reduce Aboriginal women’s poverty is needed to reduce levels of family violence.

“As provided in the Little Children are Sacred Report and continually referenced in reports, studies and reviews thereafter, effective, culturally secure and trauma-informed policies, practice and support services are place-based and community-led requiring substantial and significant long-term investment to establish and maintain appropriate mechanisms, including establishment of safe houses, provision of legal and support services, ongoing community legal education delivered within community and across age groups and within sporting organisations.” Submission 24, from NT Women’s Legal Services.

The Senator

When West Australian Senator Dorinda Cox, a Yamatji-Noongar woman, joined the Senate during the 46th Parliament in September 2021, she had one pressing priority: to initiate an inquiry into missing and murdered First Nations women and children.

Cox, a former police officer and family violence researcher, has talked of her own family’s experience of the trauma of family violence, in an article published by The Greens last year.

She described her efforts to ensure the inquiry was conducted in a trauma-informed and culturally-sensitive way with Welcome to Country, smoking ceremonies, yarning and additional support for families introduced to the standard inquiry format.

“I initiated the inquiry to highlight the barriers to justice faced by First Nations families when a loved one disappears and is murdered. The committee has heard devastating truths from families in NSW and WA so far, and will continue to hold hearings on Country in other states and territories this year.

“It’s been important to me to ensure that the focus of the hearings has been about the families whose lives have been ripped apart by the murder of their daughters, mothers, sisters and in some instances the devastating loss of children. These are their stories, their truths to be listened to,” Cox explained.

In an interview with Croakey, Cox said she did not expect the inquiry would “be the last time that we have this conversation”, but was hopeful that it would encourage changes, particularly around policing and coronial inquests.

“Lots of the families that we have spoken to continue to still not feel that they have all the answers to whether it’s a missing persons case or they don’t feel that they have had a just response from the system,” she said.

“That includes not having all the answers or being able to even find a place to ask those questions. It leaves them with a sense of ‘unfinished business.’”

Cox also stressed the importance of honouring the lives of First Nations women and children, and referred to the recent incident with two young Yawuru children in Broome having their hands cable tied.

“They [First Nations women and children] are not measured in the same way. Here there are not vigils that are held for the women that are lost, there are not front-page articles in national media about children that are murdered. I think that there has to be a time of reckoning on how we as a society perceive the respect and value the lives of First Nations women and children in this country.”

• Dr Melissa Sweet contributed to the analysis of the submissions.

• Croakey acknowledges and thanks donors to our public interest journalism funding pool who supported this work.


Support

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Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

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