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A First Nations person, R Rubuntja stands in the sunlight.
Founding member of the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group, and anti-domestic violence campaigner R. Rubuntja. Chay Brown, Author provided (no reuse)

‘She was the most important person to us’ – R. Rubuntja’s story shows society is still failing First Nations women

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains mentions and images of someone who has passed away. There are also descriptions of domestic and family violence and murder.

R. Rubuntja was a loving mother and grandmother. She was funny and intelligent, and so very strong.

R. had lived through domestic and family violence. She was a founding member of the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group – a group of senior women from Alice Springs Town Camps. This strong women’s group works to bring visibility to Aboriginal women’s experiences and to end family violence.

One of the last times Tangentyere staff, members of the women’s group and I saw R. was about a week or so before she was murdered. We were at the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group Christmas party. She sat the whole time with her baby granddaughter on her lap.

We remember that in our last workshop for the year, there was no getting anything out of R. that day because she only had eyes and attention for her granddaughter – walking around the room with her, feeding her squished-up bananas, and playing blocks with her.

One of my fondest memories of R. was out at Ross River on a retreat with the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group. She was supposed to be cooking the ‘roo tail, but instructed me – the vegetarian – to cook it while she played cards and shouted over instructions.

In the Tangentyere women’s group’s film about Hope and Healing, R. said:

when I first had my little boy, my partner used to just be violence – fighting. And it’s got to stop. No more violence. It’s not only for me, it’s for everyone. Stop the violence.

On January 7 2021, R. was brutally and publicly murdered by her partner in front of the Alice Springs hospital. Her murder sent shock waves of grief and anguish through our whole community.

On April 1 2022, Malcolm Abbott pleaded guilty to R’s murder, and was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 25 years.

How was a man with an extensive history of domestic violence - including a previous manslaughter conviction - able to continue to be released from several short prison sentences, and go on to murder R?

Clearly, the justice system failed R. With First Nations women being 11 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to die from gender-based violence, our systems need to do more. In addition, the mostly silent media response to R’s murder also speaks volumes about the way Australia regards the lives of First Nations women.

We need accountability for men who use violence

In court that day, R’s family and friends sat with dignity and listened to the results of R’s post mortem examination, and the list of the horrific injuries the perpetrator inflicted upon her. We listened as we heard that R. had reached out many times for help.

We also sat and listened to the perpetrator’s extensive history of domestic violence.

Abbott had previously killed another woman, and stabbed at least four others in separate attacks. Each time he was convicted and sentenced to jail – 10 years, 5 years, 15 months, 12 months. Each time, he served his sentence. Then he was released a final time, and he murdered R. He will likely spend the rest of his life in jail.

Sadly, R.’s death was not the only domestic violence homicide of a First Nations woman that our community experienced last year. According to reports, this woman’s death was allegedly at the hands of her partner, who also later died. This alleged homicide went under-reported.

The media guidelines talk about how painful it can be to families and communities when deaths are ignored and not reported – or are reported in harmful and culturally unsafe ways. One participant, a First Nations woman, says “it feels like media don’t take all lives equally and as seriously”.

Read more: Women's police stations in Australia: would they work for 'all' women?

Reporting on domestic, family and sexual violence

My and the Tangentyere Women’s Group and staff’s experience with some media after R’s death ranged from media silence, to others pushing to release a story by the deadline rather than wait for necessary permissions. This prompted my colleagues and me to write the media guidelines for the reporting of domestic, family and sexual violence in the Northern Territory.

In these guidelines, we propose six principles for safe and ethical reporting of violence against women.

  • Safety-focused: the safety of women and children is prioritised in reporting

  • Victim-survivor centred: the voices of victim-survivors are elevated

  • Rapport and relationships: build trust with affected communities and the domestic, family, and sexual violence sector

  • Do no harm: always consider the impact reporting may have on victim-survivors, families, and communities, as well as the impact it may have on community attitudes towards violence against women

  • Challenge myths and stereotypes: challenge harmful attitudes and beliefs about violence against women and provide the necessary context and depth in the reporting

  • Deep listening: listen to Aboriginal people, families and communities about the issues that affect them and their experiences. And listen to experts from the domestic, family, and sexual violence sector

At the launch of the media guidelines, Larissa Ellis, chief executive of the Women’s Safety Services of Central Australia, gave a powerful speech, in which she said:

In the Northern Territory, often victim’s/survivor’s voices are silenced, muted, never heard. These guidelines, entitled ‘Media Changing the Story’ are a call to our media allies, to ensure we get these women’s stories out. That we acknowledge the pain of domestic violence, but also the resilience of survivors.“

Read more: Consent education needs Blak voices for the safety and well-being of young First Nations people

More needs to be done for women’s safety in Australia

National media coverage and outrage about R’s death and Abbott’s conviction has been minimal. There has been some local coverage, but most mainstream news outlets have largely been silent. There’s been no social media outcry, no opinion pieces questioning how a man with such a violent history was able to kill again, and no national campaign to reform the systems that allowed this to happen.

It is hard to imagine the death of a white woman being met with the same silence as R’s murder, especially when there is such evidence of systems failure. There needs to be a national reflection on why some women’s voices are elevated and why others are sidelined. Why are some stories met with public outrage, while others are met with barely a whisper of acknowledgement – as though their lives did not matter?

In Australia, we are supposed to be undergoing a national conversation about women’s safety. Yet those who are most affected – First Nations women, LGBTQI+ people, women with disability, refugee and migrant women – are often marginalised, silenced, unheard in this conversation.

R’s family said in their victim impact statement, read aloud in court:

she was the most important person to us… it is really sad that she died this way, at the hands of her partner when she was working so hard to make that stop for other women.

R. mattered. Her life mattered. She is loved and terribly missed.

This article was written with permission from R. Rubuntja’s family.

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