Australia Needs An Inquiry Into Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women
Charlene Warrior deserves justice, as do countless others who have been lost.
On the evening of October 3, police found the body of a 21-year-old woman who had been reported missing for almost three weeks after travelling to pick up her daughter in Bute, a small town on the York Peninsula in South Australia.
— Content warning: This article contains discussion of Indigenous deaths. —
She was a loving mother, daughter, and sister. Her name was Charlene Warrior.
Charlene’s family last saw her on September 18. She’d been missing for almost three weeks before a search began on October 1 and within two days her body was found. Investigations are still underway, but South Australian police have said “her death appears to be non-suspicious”.
A neighbour in Bute allegedly heard screams coming from the house before Charlene went missing. “I heard her screaming, incoherently. Screaming at the top of her voice, sobbing,” they told 7News. Despite the screams, there haven’t been any reports of people who tried to help her that night.
Australia has a long history of Indigenous missing persons and too many examples of the deaths of young Aboriginal people being deemed ‘not suspicious’. In one of Australia’s most infamous murder cases, the Bowraville murders, police delayed filing a missing person’s report for 16-year-old Colleen Walker-Craig, and assumed four-year-old Evelyn Greenup went “walkabout”.
First Nations people are over-represented in missing persons reports and history has shown it takes a deceased body for any kind of public response, for news headlines, for police to try and give families the justice they deserve.
Classic Case Of The ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’
Journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” back in 2004, describing the media coverage and public support that’s generated when a white woman is missing or murdered.
“If there’s a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that every day,” she said at the Unity: Journalists of Color convention in Washington, DC.
When stories about Indigenous people do make it pass the editors and into the headlines, it’s usually constructed in a particular way — as Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire recently explained.
“Aboriginal women who are victims of violence are often re-victimised in media representations following their deaths,” wrote McQuire. “They are painted in dehumanising terms and seen as responsible for their own deaths. When attempts are made to ‘humanise’ them, it is always in language that sees ‘human’ as close to whiteness, as most palatable to white Australia.
“There is a common mantra that accompanies this: ‘It could have been me’. In many cases of murdered and missing Aboriginal women, it would not have been ‘us’, or ‘me’. The unique experiences of Aboriginal women resisting violence is inconceivable to a public accustomed to viewing us solely as perpetrators.”
‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ isn’t just isn’t an American or Canadian issue — it’s thriving in Australia too, except we don’t talk about it nearly enough.
There are no allocated resources to finding missing Indigenous women, there’s limited data and research (some states don’t even properly record information at all), and there are minor reports in the news. Meanwhile, families are searching for answers, not knowing whether to hold onto hope or grieve for the loss of a loved one.
Australia Needs A National Inquiry
In 2016, the Canadian government launched an independent National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It came about after calls from survivors, Indigenous communities, and non-profit organisations to address the staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women.
After hearing traumatic lived experiences of survivors and families, the report revealed the root of this violence was the “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations” and that the nation required “transformative legal and social changes”.
Last year, Noongar woman and associate professor Hannah McGlade co-wrote a case study called Femicide and the Killing State, which looked at the deaths of Indigenous women outside of custody — like on the open roads or in their homes — and connected this research with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement in the US and Canada.
Data shows First Nations women in Australia are over-represented in missing person reports and despite making up only three percent of the population, 16 percent of female murder victims are Indigenous women.
Labour MP and Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney called for a senate inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls three years ago, and Greens Senator and Noongar-Bibbulmun-Yamajti woman Dorina Cox called for one again recently, as she reminded colleagues and the public that First Nations women and young girls deserve justice and won’t be forgotten.
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“[Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are] 35 times more likely to experience violence and 10 times more likely to experience death because of family violence,” said Cox. “This is why I will campaign for a national inquiry into the missing and murdered First Nations Australia women — similar to the one of our First Nations Canadian brothers and sisters from across the pacific.
“The red and handprint that I wore on my mask yesterday into the chamber and today that I told up is a symbol of the bloodied hand silencing the voices of those stories.”
Countless Unsolved Missing And Murder Cases
“I didn’t realise till later on that he was a child protection officer. He was there to investigate us,” said Murial Craig, mother of Colleen Walker in the documentary, Bowraville Murders: Australia Uncovered.
Colleen Walker, a 16-year-old, was one of three children who went missing in the Bowraville murders, a landmark case that revealed the systemic racism that’s riddled throughout the Australian justice system.
Clinton Speedy Deurex, another teenager, also tragically lost his life. But when it came time to conduct an investigation, it’s been alleged that police made multiple mistakes and didn’t follow the usual forensic investigation procedure.
Thirty years after the murders, justice still hasn’t been done — and Colleen, Clinton, and Evelyn’s families are not the only ones trying to fight for justice in a system that has compounded trauma and denied their loss and pain.
There’s the Smith family in Bourke who lost two young girls, Mona and Cindy, in a fatal car crash in 1987 where the driver was charged with culpable driving occasioning death and indecent interference with Cindy’s body’ and walked away a free man three years later.
And there’s Stacy Thorne, a Noongar woman who was five and a half months pregnant when she was murdered in her home. Once again, her accused walked free.
There are countless others — too many. We need an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls right now — not just for those who’ve lost their lives, but for their families who deserve justice.
Tahnee Jash is an Aboriginal/Fijian-Indian journalist based in Sydney. You can find her on Twitter @tahneejash.