In Australia, where Indigenous women are anywhere between 30 – 87 per cent more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-Indigenous women, there is a startling disparity between the portrayal of Indigenous versus non-Indigenous victimhood.
While Indigenous women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of a domestic violence-related incident, victims also have to overcome persistent and racist stereotypes to be taken seriously or even rightfully recognized as victims. Even more disturbingly, there exists a widespread, systemic culture of non-reporting: one study estimates that up to 90 per cent of violent assaults against Indigenous women go unreported.
Indigenous victims are also consistently denied representation when it comes to discussions on domestic violence, changes to policy or media coverage on the issues.
Linda Ryle, former President of the Indigenous Lawyers Association of Queensland, says Indigenous victims are veritably invisible:
“As far as Aboriginal women go, [reports of domestic violence]- it’s less important. It’s low priority. There’s not enough support or due regard for the Indigenous female victim, and I don’t know what the blockage is but there’s a definite barrier there. It’s almost like it’s too hard or regarded as all cultural,” she says.
It is clear that the lasting impacts of racism are at the heart of our differing responses to Indigenous incidents of domestic violence.
The Third Action Plan by the Australian Government calls for ‘managed support for families and encouraging behaviour change without resorting to police or courts, such as family dispute resolution’ within Indigenous communities, highlighting the government’s hesitation to criminalise domestic violence when Indigenous people are involved.
This ‘othering’ of responses is a huge part of the problem, and suggests that violence against women has a strong foundation within Indigenous culture.
Ms Ryle refutes this is the case: “as Marcia Langton [has] pointed out, if domestic violence was a part of our traditional culture, we wouldn’t have survived. At the rate that Aboriginal women are being killed, there would be no Aboriginal culture. It’s very difficult to align 60,000 years of culture against 200 years which have encompassed domestic violence and the rates our women are dying at ridiculous levels.”
The real question remains: why are Indigenous women so much more likely to become victims of domestic violence, and why are their stories not being reported?
"It is clear that the lasting impacts of racism are at the heart of our differing responses to Indigenous incidents of domestic violence."
The reality is that rates of domestic violence within Indigenous communities speaks to a broader trend of post-colonization violence around the world.
In western states with a history of colonization like Australia’s - think think Canada, America and New Zealand - other local Indigenous communities also experience high rates of domestic violence. In Australia, the impact of colonization and associated traumas including the loss of land, rights, language, culture and forcible removal of children in the Stolen Generation have ‘contributed to the erosion of social structures and traditional values’.
High unemployment rates, low socioeconomic status and a lack of services, governance and a fractured relationship with law enforcement are some of the modern manifestations of these traumas, which have created conditions for rampant violence and crime in Indigenous communities.
It seems as though our government’s proposed ‘community justice’ response is borne out of fear to call out Indigenous crime because these compounding factors have played such a critical role in elevated rates of violence.
In her experience, Ms Ryle says it is common for Indigenous victims not to report episodes of domestic violence due to their fear or mistrust of police: “90 per cent of domestic violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women is not reported. Why is that? I can’t think of one police officer that I have met, as an Aboriginal woman or an Aboriginal professional, that I feel I could implicitly trust to protect my lawful interests. Not one," she says.
"That’s a very big concern, because if that’s where I’m sitting, and I have worked closely with many, what chance does an Aboriginal woman who’s not had the benefits that I’ve had - [living] in Cherbourg, or Doomadgee, in Woorabinda, anywhere, in Bowen, Townsville - what chance have they got for being taken seriously and being properly regarded as a victim of a crime?”
It is this kind of cultural barrier and entrenched bias that reinforces to perpetrators that violence has a place in Indigenous culture while victims are further shamed into staying silent.
“Conversely, simply because an Indigenous woman presents with a problem requiring police intervention does not automatically mean that she is a victim of domestic violence. Much more focus is required on the actual evidence in each case. Bias and disregard is a life changer for Aboriginal women,” Ms Ryle says.
The stories of the very few Indigenous women victims who are known are subject to intense scrutiny by the media and law enforcement. Is this due to the fact that so few incidents of domestic violence are reported, or is there a mutual culture of mistrust?
The reported incidents are beyond inhumane.
In 2011, Lynette Daley died from ‘blunt force genital tract trauma’ at the hands of her (non-indigenous) boyfriend, Adrian Attwater, and his friend, Paul Maris, who forced her to ‘perform a series of sex acts in the back of a four-wheel-drive while she was heavily inebriated'.
Initially, neither Attwater nor Maris were prosecuted.
Following an investigation by Four Corners and public outcry, however, the case was re-opened in 2017, taking a jury less than an hour to return a guilty verdict for both men.
Attwater was sentenced to 19 years in prison for manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault while Maris received a nine-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault and hindering the collection of evidence.
In an article published in The Monthly, Ms Langton wrote that Ms Daley’s death was symptomatic of our tendency to dismiss Aboriginal deaths as unsuspicious even in the face of compelling evidence:
'The failure to prosecute indicates a tolerance for violence against women, and a disregard for the lives of Aboriginal women. (“If it would’ve been two Aboriginal boys had done that to a white girl,” observed Daley’s traumatized stepfather, “I reckon they’d be still in jail.”)'
Ms Langton argues that the people who oppose community-initiated intervention pose a grave threat to fixing systemic problems like domestic violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities. More importantly, they are also further endangering the safety of the countless women and children in immediate danger. To argue against specific community owned and driven initiatives in communities where domestic violence and abuse are rampant prioritizes a political agenda over the victims’ human rights.
While the assumption that all Aboriginal women are affected by domestic and family violence is false, those who have been impacted should not have to overcome systemic racial bias just to be recognized and protected.
It is time we forego our politics and recognize that the women we are failing are in no way culpable, regardless of their race.
Just like Allison Baden-Clay, Tara Brown, Teresa Bradford and so many other victims, these women are mothers, sisters and community figures who deserve justice, dignity and for their voices to be heard.