This article mentions violence towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children. There are also mentions of racial discrimination, sexual abuse, and death.
The Voice referendum was an important rallying cry for recognition of Indigenous rights in 2023. This, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for Australians to engage with critical issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that too often are neglected.
Instead, during the Voice campaign we witnessed a revival of racism that has long tarnished our nation.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Senator Nampijinpa Jacinta Price, two main figures who vocally opposed the Voice, have turned their attention to the very serious issue of Aboriginal child sexual abuse. Shortly after the referendum defeat, they attempted to pass a senate motion for a royal commission into child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities. This has been rejected by parliament.
They also expressed this motion was fuelling stereotypes about Indigenous peoples that were pushed throughout the referendum campaign.
We are Aboriginal women researchers with decades of experience in advocacy and law reform in violence against women and children. As academics and community members with lived experience we want to raise awareness from an ethical and informed position. Given our experience we agree the federal parliament was right to reject the motion by Senator Price calling for a Royal Commission.
Victims’ experiences are often complex and traumatic, even more so when the victim is a child from a marginalised community. Aboriginal child sexual abuse must be addressed responsibly. This issue should never be weaponised or politicised.
Aboriginal children are at risk
The Closing the Gap dashboard shows Indigenous children experience sexual assault at a rate of 2.7 per 1,000 children compared to 0.5 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous children. These numbers are based on reports made to child protective services.
Research indicates children are often sexually assaulted by persons known to them and their families, and offenders may be Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. There are many barriers for young Aboriginal victims being able to report to authorities, such as fear of repercussion.
The harm of racist public debates
The wider failure of the legal system to address sexual assault is now the subject of a national inquiry by the Australian Law Reform Commission. It aims to strengthen sexual assault laws and the criminal justice response, and examine how to prevent further harm for victims.
We have seen how racist perceptions of Aboriginal people and their communities can lead to harmful policies and practices. We have experienced this with the Stolen Generations, the Northern Territory Intervention, the over-representation of our kids in out-of-home care and detention, resulting in children’s deaths.
Laws and policies like these are underlined by racist assumptions. They have further diminished Indigenous peoples’ rights, agency, leadership and even ability to protect our own children. Making broad claims that denigrate Aboriginal families and communities as dysfunctional or predatory, is dangerous and harmful to our communities, including children.
The call for a royal commission would not address these issues, what we need is self-determination in Aboriginal child protection.
Indigenous-led solutions are the only way forward
Many inquiries and reports have made important recommendations about how best to address sexual abuse against Aboriginal children. These include the Gordon Inquiry, the Little Children are Sacred inquiry and the Child Sexual Abuse Taskforce.
community decision-making in responses to problems, recognising their diversity and needs
responding to harms of violence through meaningful partnerships between Indigenous communities and sectors
consistent and appropriate long-term funding – acknowledging that trauma of violence and its associated social implications can remain long after any physical impacts have healed
strengthening the capacity of workforces to be responsive to the harms of violence against women – recognising that if a victim’s first point of contact is negative, the implications are significant.
Too many of these important recommendations have not been implemented and given effect by governments.
What needs to happen
Aboriginal women have long called for Healing Centres and culturally-informed therapeutic approaches to Aboriginal family and domestic violence for women, children and families, while ensuring their safety. In our research, we have also looked at international examples of Indigenous-led models addressing child sexual abuse.
The first dedicated plan of action to address violence towards Indigenous women and children resulted from Aboriginal women’s collective leadership and advocacy. This was alongside the work of Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar on the Wiyi Yani Yu Thangani project. Wiyu Yani Yu Thangani calls for reforms to increase the protection of Aboriginal children, especially women and girls, and to support community-controlled organisations in doing this.
Aboriginal women also led advocacy for the development of The Stand Alone First Nations Plan. This plan aims to address violence against First Nations women and children. In its creation, it centres the voices of First Nations children at risk of sexual abuse. It is now a commitment of government, with $4.1 million now allocated to its work.
But we must also begin to address the issue of racism in this country. According to a 2022 Human Rights Commission report, 52% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported at least one incident of prejudiced behaviour in the last six months. This is consistent with other research indicating high levels of racism towards Aboriginal people, such as the finding that three out of four non-Aboriginal Australians hold prejudice towards Aboriginal people.
Racism - even “unconscious” racism against Aboriginal people can reinforce harmful stereotypes that seek to justify dangerous policies against those most vulnerable. Aboriginal children are already dealing with the added pressures of racism and witnessing the negative treatment of their communities.
The Human Rights Commission has undertaken a scoping report to commence the work of an anti-racism framework. There have also recently been moves to speed up the anti-racism strategy, because of rising racism sparked by the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Increasing safety for Aboriginal children requires genuine and respectful relationships between governments and our communities. There needs to be dialogue, sustainable actions, resources and accountability to achieve results.
Australia has a long history of denying and turning a blind eye to racism, despite the harm it brings to Aboriginal children. The political debates and rising racism this year has shown just how far we have to go.
Addressing racism is critical to improving the lives of Aboriginal children. Their lives matter, and weaponising Aboriginal children to promote harmful political agendas must end.
- ^ rejected (www.sbs.com.au)
- ^ organisations (www.snaicc.org.au)
- ^ rejected (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ weaponised (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ racism (www.sbs.com.au)
- ^ intergenerational trauma (journalindigenouswellbeing.co.nz)
- ^ dashboard (www.pc.gov.au)
- ^ Research (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ child protection (theconversation.com)
- ^ policing (theconversation.com)
- ^ New research reveals harrowing stories of murdered Indigenous women and the failure of police to act (theconversation.com)
- ^ national inquiry (ministers.ag.gov.au)
- ^ well documented (books.google.com.au)
- ^ racism and discrimination (equityhealthj.biomedcentral.com)
- ^ even worse (www.cnn.com)
- ^ Stolen Generations (healingfoundation.org.au)
- ^ Northern Territory Intervention (www.sbs.com.au)
- ^ out-of-home care (theconversation.com)
- ^ children’s deaths (www.sentencingcouncil.vic.gov.au)
- ^ Here's some context missing from the Mparntwe Alice Springs 'crime wave' reporting (theconversation.com)
- ^ the Gordon Inquiry (search.informit.org)
- ^ Little Children are Sacred (humanrights.gov.au)
- ^ the Child Sexual Abuse Taskforce (catalogue.nla.gov.au)
- ^ recommendations (classic.austlii.edu.au)
- ^ culturally-informed (watermark.silverchair.com)
- ^ international examples (www.tandfonline.com)
- ^ Wiyi Yani Yu Thangani (wiyiyaniuthangani.humanrights.gov.au)
- ^ community-controlled organisations (humanrights.gov.au)
- ^ The Stand Alone First Nations Plan (www.niaa.gov.au)
- ^ Human Rights Commission report (humanrights.gov.au)
- ^ three out of four (www.anu.edu.au)
- ^ even “unconscious” racism (classic.austlii.edu.au)
- ^ speed up (www.theguardian.com)