Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Wurundjeri yani U. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani. Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.
Thank you Cathy and Sandra, and Tracey and Kateri - I am looking forward to the discussion that we are all about to have. I plan to set the tone about how we can and will deliver justice under laws and frameworks that uphold our unique rights, needs and interests as Indigenous peoples, as Indigenous women and girls.
Let me start with a few questions:
Under whose law do I come to define myself?
Under whose definition of woman do I become me?
Under whose definition of equality do I achieve success?
And, under whose policy and legislative frameworks and judicial systems do I become all that I am?
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples we sit at an intersection of many ways of being, and a complex set of identities. All that I am, is many things – I am a proud Bunuba person from my ancestral homelands, an Australian citizen, and a strong Aboriginal woman.
It is with this set of identities, and the lessons of my ancestors, tightly folded together within me, that I have become the first woman to be appointed to the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Under the laws of this nation I hold this position and have statutory responsibilities. Under the laws of my ancestors and the continuation of our civilization today, I hold this position with a great sense of responsibility for the human rights of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and particularly our women and girls.
With this at the forefront of my mind I have made the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls a priority of my five year term.
Our identities and who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, is complex, constantly shaped by the dynamic world we occupy. We derive our strength and rich culture from a line of incredible Indigenous women emanating from a time immemorial. Simultaneously, we have to live with multiple forms of discrimination which cut across lines of race, class, and socio-economic status.
As Indigenous women we should feel confident to be all of who we are in a contemporary Australia, while remaining secure in our distinct identities. We should never have to resist any aspect of our identity, or feel the need to assimilate to get by because of discriminating acts against us. We certainly should not have to assimilate to be successful.
Under our traditional laws and the laws of this nation, and our international human rights obligations we should be free to express all of who we are without fear of persecution, discrimination or any form of marginalisation.
Today, in front of you all, I have expressed a significant part of my identity through speaking the language of my ancestors that you heard in opening. I carry forward in my voice, determination and agency the lessons of my forbearers – my grandmother, and my mother. I attribute to them so much of my success and resilience in the face of all forms of discrimination.
Like so many of the Indigenous women in our societal past they were remarkable tenacious leaders - warriors as much as they were teachers and nurturers. They left, in our hands, our societal values and structures so we could thrive and achieve for generations to come.
In the spirit of NAIDOC’s theme for 2018: Because of her, I can, and I know, because of them, we can!
But I also know, standing here alone, I cannot bring forth the equality that is the right of all our women and girls. Equality belongs to us all, it cannot be achieved by one or a few representing the many.
There are Indigenous women and girls across this country who everyday are achieving extraordinary acts while living in great adversity. Unfortunately, to all our detriment, these women and girls are too often blocked from achieving their potential because of structural barriers that have become entrenched under our laws and policies.
For far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women this is the reality:
• they are the fastest growing prison population in Australia, currently comprising 34% of women behind bars but only 2% of the adult female population in Australia.
• their children are almost 10 times as likely to be living in out-of-home care as other Australian children.
• they are 32 time more likely to be hospitalised from family violence and 10 times more likely to be killed as a result of violent assault.
These statistics are the result of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women not being heard. For years we have shouted from our homes, and communities, and public platforms and still things have not changed. These statistics are by no means a result of our silence.
These are the statistics that show the injustice of our material conditions which curtail our rights and freedoms. They are the indication of an appalling inequality and resulting poverty that has arisen because our voices have been marginalised. On so many indicators, Indigenous women experience a greater inequality than non-indigenous women. This cannot go on.
Yes, this may be our current reality, but they do not define who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women or who we can become. They speak to systemic issues that must be challenged and changed.
In no circumstances should the conditions of poverty become one of the driving factors for increasing incarceration rates, the removal of children, poor health and violence.
However, rather than tackling the underlying causes we are witnessing mainstream media place the burden of blame on our women. No one can talk seriously of gender equality and women’s rights when in the same breath we talk about the removal of Indigenous women’s children as if it is the only option. The rights of our children and the rights of our women are intimately attached.
Of course, we must guarantee the safety and health of our children, but this is not possible, in both the short and long-term, without responding to the needs of women and families. We must work to provide the necessary supports to children, women, families and communities to overcome systemic issues and close the gap on all forms of inequality. Reports like the recently released Australian Law Reform Commission’s report into the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in custody sets out strategies aimed at early intervention and family supports within the child welfare and justice spaces. Again, we cannot leave reports like this on the shelf. Like our voices, we must all listen and act.
The rights of Indigenous women are all of our human rights in this nation. If we allow for inequality to persist, and become entrenched through enacting inappropriate laws and policies, we not only diminish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights, we diminish our humanity as a nation.
For things to change and for equality to be achieved our voices must be heard, our recommendations implemented and actions taken. And our voices must be heard in their entirety: on our own terms, expressing all of who we are, so every part of our identity is seen as equal to all other women and people in Australia. Together our voices have great power, to keep calling out injustices, and making the changes we all know are possible.
To do this I and my team at the Commission, have embarked on a critical project: Wiyi Yani U Thangani meaning Women’s Voices. Over the course of 2018, we are going to locations across Australia to hear and listen to the issues, challenges and strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. To all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls in the audience, join us over the following days – we will be running a session at the rooftop terrace tomorrow from 5.30-7.30pm and then we will be in Logan this Monday 9th at 9.30am at the Diggers Services Club. It is all our voices - heard clearly, listened to intently and responded to effectively - that will make change happen.
For our non-indigenous sisters in the audience, walk beside us on this journey in your commitment to achieving equality. We are more equal when we stand beside one another embracing our differences. We progress equality when we take the time to listen to the truth of Indigenous women's lived experience. We progress equality when we believe that within that truth lies the solutions for change. Ultimately, achievement of equality for Indigenous women can only be defined by us. It exists entirely on our terms as Indigenous women.
Together we must say, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples: under all our laws, all women will be heard. Under all our laws equality will embrace the full force and potential of diversity. Under all our laws Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls will be all of who we are, and all of who we can be.
1. Adriane Walters and Shannon Longhurst, “Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment”, (Human Rights Law Centre, 1st, 2017) 11.
2. Australian Institute of health welfare, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander child safety https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/indigenous-australians/aboriginal-and-to...
3. Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision (2016) Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: Key indicators 2016, Productivity Commission, Canberra, p.4.98, and table (table 4A.12.13).
4. Riley Stuart and Jodan Perry, Sunrise debate about Indigenous Children sparks large protest in Sydney’s Martin Place, online ABC news, 17 March 2018, At. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-16/sunrise-protest-held-in-martin-pla... (viewed 28 March 2018)
5. Australian Law Reform Commission report into the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the country https://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/indigenous-incarceration-report133