The Indigenous community is awash with violence.
I’ve chosen to put this post on my politics blog rather than OnDusk because the content is ugly. I would caution a reader to not go any further if they have concerns about graphic content in relation to violence against women. I do not intend to write much more on this issue but have decided to on this occasion because I was recently asked for my thoughts on ‘how to work with Indigenous men to reduce violence against women’, and I’d like to attempt a response longer than the 140 char Twitter limit permits.
[Updated – 27 May 2014 – Clarification -By no means is this an essay – these were my thoughts at 3am prior to packing to travel to Melbourne for the Emerging Writers Festival. This is longer than a tweet, but much less than what it would take to draft my thesis – they are my thoughts and I have removed previously embedded tweets to ensure I have not inadvertently misrepresented anyone in the course of expressing my thoughts.]
I no longer work in Indigenous policy development, or service delivery – nor am I undertaking any studies or research, or assisting others to achieve their goals.
I am providing my thoughts based on my work experiences developing and delivering services to urban, rural and remote communities across Australia. This was my work for 30 years – I am now a writer and interested in developing arts based projects, screen writing and production and direction.
Thanks for reading.
The reasons for violence towards Indigenous women (and some men) have emerged as a critical area of research and frequently discussed – and reasons include lack of respect for the Indigenous community and culture; failure to pay just compensation to the Stolen Generation; institutionalized racism; unresolved trauma; ongoing injustice and oppression; marginalization and lack of equitable economic opportunities; loss of culture; and land dispossession, to name a few.
The violence takes all forms – from emotional blackmail, and lateral violence to extreme examples most accurately described as torture, and to the most tragic of all, where violence leads to death.
Of the females who commenced the combined arts/law degree – eight were under 25, six were single mothers, four were married mothers and three were lesbians.
By the end of the degree only the lesbian women were still with the same partner. Some additional kids had been produced, but none of the women on that university course were still with their original partners by the time they finished both degrees.
Reasons for changes in domestic arrangements – their men felt diminished, and all the students at some time faced opposition to their studies from partners, kids and in one case from her mother who sided with the son in law that time spent at home was better than years spent pursuing a degree. When her daughter was killed in a headon vehicle collision ten years later her mother and her ex partner both cited her insistence on tertiary study as a contributing factor in the daughter’s death eight years after she graduated.
This involves a rural community, where women would check themselves into the women’s shelter before their men returned from the annual football trip over a long weekend because traditionally, domestic violence would spike on the closing Monday night.
Jaw fractures and orbital fractures in remote parts of the NT are often cited as the worst in Australia. Jaw fractures are a nasty injury which can occur in a number of physical altercations, and just as easily in a robust defence of a netball, as in the home. But orbital fractures are not easy to come by. They’re common in car accidents when the face comes into contact at high speed with the dashboard. Or a person is struck on the side of the head with a blunt object with great force.
A fire stick injury – and I had never heard of this before – is when a thick piece of wood, such as branch is taken from an open fire and used in an assault. In addition to fractures, there is also the risk of third degree burns. And then there’s the injuries from boiling water – which can come from a billy on an open fire, from an electric kettle boiled, emptied and boiled again, or from being held under a scalding shower.
When women are burned, the wounds require specialized treatment. A burns compression suit is expensive, costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars. These stretchy Caucasian flesh-coloured suits also require special care: they need to be changed, washed and maintained in a very specific way.
Imagine a person with severe burns who lives in a community, average temperature 38c, no air conditioning, no washing machine, and no regular access to a nurse to change dressings. Under those circumstances, the burns victim may not even be issued with one of those precious suits. The suits serve a very important purpose that is not cosmetic. It is to ensure the patient retains limb mobility when they heal, otherwise they will be incapacitated for life. These are the forgotten people, scarred, maimed and out of sight.
I first heard about these incidents from a burns unit nurse, who was in despair because she could find no one to advocate for these women from remote communities – who suffered horrendous injuries, sometimes more than once, like the time she treated burns to a woman’s head who still had the staples in from the last bout of domestic violence – and their very specific needs. She had used her initiative to find me and had a collection of photos which she spread across the table. I have never seen anything like it – and of course it included children which I am simply not going to detail, because we can all imagine the absolute worst case scenarios.
Ugly. Violence in the extreme. Horrific and though these examples tend to be in remote locations, are more common than is reported in the media.
When violence against women is raised, discussions might cover the first scenario, with references to how the men feel oppressed and marginalized and take it out on their partners with emotional blackmail, economic deprivation or physical violence.
Or scenario two, where men are traumatized and disempowered because they no longer have traditional roles as shearers and fencers.
But rarely are people talking about scenario three where due to loss of culture and access to lands, mostly men but certainly some perpetrators are women, are engaging in extreme violence, off the scale violence, so horrendous and nightmare inducing and potentially damaging to the community at large, that people exercise caution rather than talk about it.
And what is the response beyond night patrols, and taking recourse in more police stations and prisons to at least provide relief and safety?
We know why people feel bad about themselves, and how that can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, from self harm, suicide and violence towards their loved ones and even complete strangers.
I also am well aware that people feel personally slighted, depressed or enraged if the blame for the violence is only applied to the Indigenous community, rather than the violence in word, thought and deed that is showered down upon the community in every insult, every incidence of being spat on, overlooked, denied service or justice, or shackled by paternalism and the ongoing open wound of blatant racism.
The threats to water down the Racial Discrimination Act was a cause of extreme anxiety within the Indigenous community. It is not an exaggeration to suggest some would have regarded the exposure draft as posing a real threat of physical violence from non Indigenous people.
So why are we looking to the corrosive elements outside of the community to do anything about the violence inflicted in scenarios such the above?
Thanks to the media we can clearly see that violence is against all women, not just the black women, by black men.
Women, children and some men are in direct physical harm from those they are related to or in a relationship with. And some victims, some entire communities, are in no position to fix themselves.
I was asked, what’s my starting point. My response is if I am working in that area – and I have from time to time, I look to provide practical, immediate aid.
Addressing domestic violence doesn’t mean that other areas to build up people’s self worth, and addressing their trauma, are ignored, but without armies of culturally relevant counselors and access to locally based therapy, the first response must be to ensure the victims physical safety.
When someone says to me, we need to campaign to stop the continuance of family separations and ongoing stolen generations, address oppression of men, and the healing of our community, and the outrage at the lack of justice reinvestment, rehabilitation and support services, and the proliferation of prisons, by the point of the discussion, forum, conference, and tweet debate, when we all agree racism is the underlying cause of severe injury and death amongst Indigenous women, this is usually the end note on which the conversation about violence towards (mostly) women concludes.
Without some consensus on where to start – and maybe it needs to be separate conversations – or even agreement that there will be a start and we need not first ensure we don’t feel personally attacked in the process of helping the most vulnerable, until we get to that point, my thoughts are with the forgotten women, who may one day sustain injuries so severe they die, but until then, some of them are burning in hell.
I am only interested in real conversations. For this reason, mental health problems, alcohol and substance misuse, community politics and the culture of violence, eg suggestions that men or women ‘deserve’ to be assaulted, needs to considered. What is the nature of the problem and what are the short, medium and long term solutions?
I have seen a mens’ group in operation – run by ex perpetrators of domestic violence. They were up front about their personal experiences. As one commented, everyone knows us, it’s a small town. It’s no secret we used to beat our women.
It was a small group who initiated it and it grew to a much larger group. It was culturally based, and few details were available to women. I asked my cousin, what could he tell me about the group and his message was simple – we know what violence is, and we decided as men to stop, but we don’t hide the fact we were once physically violent towards our partners and were not providing a safe and healthy home life for our children.
One of the benefits of this group was they began to take trips away to meet men in other centres to talk about violence, and again the discussions weren’t shared with me.
This group operated with no funding and in the absence of any professional counseling.
My last contact with the group was twelve of them workshopped one day and produced a cd with one song – it was about being men, what it meant to them – and it was the number one daily request at the local radio station for months.
In closing, I’ll repeat this is not my definitive work on violence but are the sum of my thoughts for now.
Thanks for reading.