Don’t Forget Indigenous Women When You’re Marching For Justice

1 in 3 First Nations women and gender diverse people will be raped. 1 in 17 of us will be murdered. Don't ignore us.

March 4 Justice indigenous women

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I’m only speaking for myself when I say this, but as a First Nations person and a woman, this has been an especially heavy time. We’ve seen three First Nations deaths in custody in the same week, two of which, only revealed under questioning. One woman and two men. In addition to this, we’ve been hearing about our Australian Government’s lack of care when it comes to the safety and well-being of women, even in their own workplace. When you’ve got white cis straight men on one side telling us that non-male identifying people are nothing, acting like First Nations lives mean nothing, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to feel?

Warning: This article speaks of First Nations people who have passed away, so please approach with care. There are counselling and other assistance resources for First Nations people at the bottom of this article. I use the terms Indigenous and First Nations interchangeably, this is to refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I have withheld the first names of mentioned people who have died, out of respect for them and their families. I will also, where possible, be referring to First Nations women and non-binary people as non-male throughout this piece.

Since Brittany Higgins bravely spoke out about her rape, it’s been tough. We then heard of other women claiming to have been assaulted by the same man, and of course the historical case accusing Christian Porter — leading to the national character annihilation of the woman who was the accuser. Following this, Australia has seen three more deaths in custody in one week.

As First Nations women, we’re often either seen as women or First Nations people — and it’s not often explored what it’s like to bridge the two categories together. It’s difficult. Particularly for those of us who have seen or experienced abuse. As Hannah McGlade states:  “What an Aboriginal woman faces is not just sexism without racism, it is a combination and very often vulnerability, poverty and disability is all going to be in the mix, so it’s a completely different experience.”

Through unethical reporting practices such as the recent article on Christian Porter’s alleged rape victim’s dossier which essentially use the since-deceased woman’s words against her, inferring that the allegations aren’t true, and Scott Morrison’s insensitive comment about women not being shot while at a women’s march — we’re getting a pretty clear picture that the men accused of wrong-doing are treated with more care than survivors or victims. According to a recent Croakey article, one in three First Nations women and girls will be raped in their lifetime. So, at the moment, one in three Indigenous women are currently being reminded that people aren’t safe from the devastating consequences of coming forward after sexual assault.

In addition to this, there is a notable lack of attention on deaths and acts of violence against First Nations women, gender diverse people, and children —  compared to that of white women. I don’t want to be doing the whole “yeah but what about…” but when I see Australian media and people choosing to focus on white stories, it’s a bit frustrating, and makes me feel like maybe people have gotten used to stories about us being hurt or killed, and/or no one cares what happens to us. As Rosemary Joiner says in her Independent Australia article:

“Sadly, we can all list a number of names of murdered women in high-profile cases from recent years. In the high-profile cases, the victims usually fit a description — white, young, traditionally ‘respectable’ women of moral repute.”

There is a history of violence against Indigenous women that has been taking place since colonial ‘settlement’. According to Indigenous Femicide and the Killing State, Nations women experienced high levels of sexual abuse, and further acts of violence, as well as being locked up in ‘factories’ and mental asylums, and having their children removed. This abuse has contributed to the intergenerational trauma that First Nations women and gender diverse people experience, that continues to affect our lives.

In her book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, Geonpul academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes of the historical differences between First Nations and white Australian women, stating that “Indigenous women do not share the same history, socialisation patterns, knowledges and experiences as white women. In society our biological characteristics are read, and have been legislated, as signifiers of ‘Other.’”

There has been a history of First Nations women being left behind in feminist agendas, missing out on the right to vote when it was granted to white women, and not having their perspectives heard on issues such as reproduction rights.

Although there has been improvement with intersectional feminism in wider practices across Australia, First Nations women’s stories are still being left behind when the media and the public address feminist pursuits and challenges. Last week there was a call and open letter from First Nations academics Hannah McGlade, Bronwyn Carlson, and Marlene Longbottom, for Our Watch to appoint an Indigenous co-chair to ensure that the rights and concerns of Indigenous women to be made more central to national discussions about violence against women. The open letter states that “sexual violence against Indigenous women and girls is being normalised and rendered invisible”.

First Nations Women Are Being Murdered

In Australia, Aboriginal women are 17 times more likely to die from homicide compared to non-Indigenous women.

Widjabul woman, and journalist, director and festival programmer Rhoda Roberts stated in an ABC article that more needs to be done in Australia to address violence against Indigenous women. Roberts has experienced great loss from the murder of her twin sister Ms Roberts in 1998, and the disappearance of her cousin Ms McDonald in 2002.

“When two Aboriginal women have disappeared in a very short length of time, you’d think they’d be more discussion, more investigation. If it were two white women, I truly wonder if it would have been a different type of undertaking with a taskforce.”

Ms McDonald has still not been found. There was an episode of Cold Justice focusing on what happened to Ms Roberts.

In 2011, Ms Daley, died from injuries sustained in a horrific sexual assault. It took seven years of Ms Daley’s family battling, before the two men charged would be sent to prison. One man was charged for aggravated sexual assault, and manslaughter, and the other for aggravated sexual assault, and hindering the collection of evidence. There is a 4 Corners report on Ms Daley’s case. In 2017, Ms Clarke was shot to death by police. In 2007, Ms Thorne, a woman who was 22 weeks pregnant when she was stabbed 21 times and left to bleed to death, by her non-Indigenous boyfriend, who did not want her to go through with the pregnancy. Her alleged murderer has since been found not guilty at a retrial in 2020. And in January this year, Ms Rubuntja an anti-domestic violence advocate was allegedly murdered in a domestic violence incident.

Indigenous Women And Children Are Still Missing

In December 2019, Labor MP Linda Burney called for a senate inquiry into missing First Nations women, due to the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in missing persons cases in Australia.

There are still unsolved cases of First Nations women and children missing in Australia, such as the historic Bowraville case of the suspected murders of Aboriginal children Colleen Walker, Evelyn Greenup, and Clinton Speedy-Duroux, which after 25 years, have still not been solved. In 1990, 16 year old Ms Williams disappeared from Coober Pedy, and the suspected murderer, a non-Indigenous man was acquitted of her murder in 2016. Her body has never been found. Ms Clubb has been missing since 2013, after not returning from a trip to Brisbane.

Women Are Trying To Flee Abuse

Indigenous women are 35 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalised for family violence-related assaults, and are imprisoned at 21 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.

According to the Pathways to Justice report, when Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, died in police custody in 2014, it was from injuries that she’d obtained from a family violence assault, after officers failed to provide medical care for her injuries.

In an article for the ABC, Hannah McGlade speaks of Miriwoong woman Jody Gore, a woman who had experienced severe domestic violence and abuse from her partner, leaving scars on her body. Gore was found guilty of murdering her partner, rejecting her claim that she had acted in self-defense. Gore was sentenced to life behind bars, despite her poor health meaning that she might not survive the sentence. McGlade, working with a team, was able to assist with getting Jody Gore freed from prison in 2019 after the WA government applied ‘mercy laws’ for prisoners.

In the same article, Hannah McGlade also spoke of her own experience when her mother had to fight off her sister’s abusive partner, resulting in her mother being arrested. In 2009 Ms Pickett repeatedly went to police and other agencies saying she feared that her husband would kill her. Pickett was stabbed to death by her husband. An inquest found that WA police failed to act on multiple breaches of restraining orders by Pickett’s husband, who was also on parole at the time.

Indigenous Women Are Dying In Custody

It often seems like Black women’s deaths are cared for even less again when the deaths are occurring behind bars.

According to recent Guardian article by Latoya Aroha Rule, the Royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody investigated 99 Blak deaths in Australia, with 11 of them were Aboriginal women.

This article provided a list of these 11 First Nations women:
– Ms Barnes
– Ms Binks
– Ms Blankett
– Ms Egan
– Ms Jones
– Miss O’Rourke
– Ms Short
– Ms Tiers
– the Yarrie sisters
– the Aboriginal woman who died in Ceduna in 1983

Rule’s article also features recent cases such as Ms Nelson, a Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman was found dead in her cell, due to a medical condition. She called for help 12 times in the hours leading up to her death. Ms Fisher-Tilberoo, a Birra Gubba woman who was awaiting transfer to a women’s correctional facility, was found unresponsive in her holding cell.  Ms Day, a Yorta-Yorta woman was arrested for public drunkenness after falling asleep on a V/Line Train to Melbourne. While in police custody, Ms Day fell and hit her head on a wall in her cell, and was left lying on the floor for three hours. According to an ABC article, Ms Day’s death could have been prevented, but the police officers failed to check on her. Ms Maher, a Wiradjuri woman found non-responsive in her cell, and died from multi-drug toxicity. A trans woman Ms Baxter was arrested and remanded in an all-male prison, where she died. According to the Sydney Criminal Lawyers blog, before her death, Baxter had used the emergency intercom in her cell, and there was no record of anyone taking those calls.

First Nations women and gender diverse people are more likely to be victims/survivors of violence, and are overrepresented in missing persons cases, and 1 in three of us will be raped, and one in 17 of us will be murdered — but when we’re trying to defend ourselves, or call the police, we could end up in jail, where we are also overrepresented, and more likely than non-Indigenous people to also die there. So what do we do? And why isn’t this pissing off the rest of the country?! Why aren’t we hearing about this in International Women’s Day panels, or seeing the same women at Women’s Marches, marching for the First Nations women falling through the cracks of a colony who has consistently tried to destroy us?

I’m not saying to ignore white deaths, and give all your attention to us, I’m saying give us the time as well, let us speak. I have consciously decided not to compare actual cases of non-Indigenous women and gender diverse people vs. First Nations, because it’s disrespectful to the people involved. The point of the story is, men need to get their shit together and stop hurting women and gender diverse people and children.

However, Blak women, and women of colour need to be included in the collective outrage when this shit happens. We need to be included in national conversations and agendas when discussing the impacts of and strategies against gender-based violence in Australia. Be as outraged when you see a Blak death or woman of colour dying, as well as the white women you might relate to a little better.

It is my hope that people will be more acquainted with the state of danger of being a First Nations woman, a Black woman, or a woman of colour in Australia, and let their activism, anger, and choices reflect on this, including us in your battle and your rage, prioritising our voices as well as those of white women, and to help us try to survive this.

Resources for First Nations women and gender diverse people:

Djirra: 1800 105 303
Djirra is a place where culture is shared and celebrated, and where practical support is available to all Aboriginal women and particularly to Aboriginal people who are currently experiencing family violence or have in the past.

Wirringa Baiya – Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre

Support for women and children who are experiencing domestic and family violence or sexual assault.

Phone: (02) 9569 3847

Freecall: 1800 686 587

Mudgin-Gal Aboriginal Corporation & Women’s Servic

Centre Hours: 9:00am – 5:00pm, Monday to Friday

Phone: (02) 9698 1173

Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services

There are over 50 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (AMS) in NSW. Many AMS offer Domestic and Family Violence counselling services – find your nearest service here.

The AMS in Redfern is located at:
36 Turner Street, Redfern

Phone: (02) 9319 5823 or (02) 9319 3345

Email: [email protected]

Indigenous Women’s Legal Services NSW

The Indigenous Women’s Legal Contact Line provides free confidential legal information, advice and referrals for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in NSW with a focus on domestic violence, sexual assault, parenting issues, family law, discrimination and victim’s compensation.

Phone: (02) 8745 6977

Freecall: 1800 639 784

Aboriginal Legal Services

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) gives legal advice and court representation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children in NSW and the ACT. The ALS has 23 offices around NSW and the ACT.

They provide support and information for victims of crime in New South Wales.

CRIME Phone: 1800 765 676 (freecall)

CARE Phone: 1800 733 233 (freecall)

Thiyam-Li Family Violence Service

Service directed to Aboriginal clients. Domestic violence and sexual assault, family law, child protection, AVOs and victims compensation.

Located at: 30 Gwydir Street, Moree NSW

Phone: (02) 6751 1400

Email: [email protected]

Carissa Lee (@rissless) is a Noongar/Wemba-Wemba writer and actor based in Narrm (Melbourne).