Last week’s National Summit on Women’s Safety was intended to gather input from stakeholders as the government finalises the next National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children in 2022. A series of invite-only virtual roundtables was also held prior to the summit.
The catalyst for the spotlight on violence against women and the calls for the prime minister to act was the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins in Parliament House and the violent deaths of Hannah Clarke and her children last year.
On average in Australia, a woman is killed by her partner every week and a quarter of all women have experienced violence by an intimate partner.
As the prime minister addressed the summit, he conceded that Australia does have a problem.
There is indeed a problem with gender-based violence in Australia, but concern is not afforded in the same way to all groups. Violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women does not produce the same alarm.
The horrific statistics of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are not unknown to the government. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been calling for a separate national plan (among other initiatives) to address family, domestic and gender-based violence for a long time.
Violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is ignored
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience violence at horrifying rates and are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised and 11 times more likely to die from gender-based violence.
Dr Hannah McGlade, Dr Marlene Longbottom and I wrote an open letter to Our Watch, a group that works to prevent violence against women and children in Australia. We shared our frustration about the lack of outrage regarding violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, which we argue has been normalised and rendered invisible.
We also called for a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander council on violence against Indigenous women, as we know the issues facing Indigenous women require our own leadership and direction.
We are constantly calling for Indigenous-led solutions, adequate resources and flexibility over programs to take into account the diversity of our communities. Instead, we continue to be excluded from these conversations.
A polarising example is non-Indigenous women and criminologists supporting the criminalisation of coercive control — even though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts have demonstrated how this would cause us harm.
As Longbottom and Dr Amanda Porter have outlined in their submission to the Queensland Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce:
there is a need to investigate the impact of state-based violence and how the state along with those employed within the system apply coercive control in their surveillance of Indigenous community members.
‘Nobody listens to us’
During the Women’s Safety Summit, as I listened to Professor Marcia Langton, June Oscar, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, and Sandra Creamer, chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council, I was reminded of just how long we’ve been making the call for our own leadership.
As Langton told the summit,
Let me be very clear about this. Nobody listens to us.
And Oscar said,
We have always experienced being an afterthought, add on or linked-in measure. We have got to stop that practice.
As Langton further noted, no national plan has ever worked for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.
There has also been criticism of the summit’s processes, especially in relation to the invite-only roundtables. Many felt excluded from the consultation, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers who work in this area.
This is problematic because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been the focus of much research generally led by non-Indigenous people. We are often cited as being over-researched in this way.
We will always need our own researchers producing the evidence we need to develop solutions that work for us.
The summit also revealed a lack of statistics on the experiences of LGBTQIA+ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who experience gender-based violence. While the summit did include a private LGBTQIA+ roundtable, the event was still framed as the “Women’s Safety Summit”, which excludes many.
A national summit to end gendered violence was suggested as an alternative. This would be more inclusive and address the breadth of the issue.
Throughout the event, there were also multiple calls for a separate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander national plan to address violence against women and their children. This resulted in the Women’s Safety Minister Anne Ruston agreeing to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to develop one.
There are, however, concerns about whether this is another plan that never achieves anything. Or a plan putting the responsibility on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, but not the power or resources required to do the work.