The Guardian • Issue #2103


Indigenous Women Unheard

Half the Sky column logo

Skye Dannaher

In the shadow of Australia’s colonial history, the voices of First Nations women resonate with a profound urgency, particularly in the realm of domestic violence – a realm where they are disproportionately victimised. The recent formation of a federal expert panel on domestic violence, conspicuously lacking an Indigenous woman’s presence, has sparked a nationwide outcry from First Nations domestic violence advocates and legal experts. They argue that this omission is not just a missed opportunity, but a continuation of the systemic silencing of Indigenous women – a critical issue of life and death.

The panel, comprising six members, is charged with conducting a “rapid review” of “best-practice prevention approaches” for domestic violence against women and children. Despite the inclusion of one First Nations man, the absence of a First Nations woman has incited frustration among advocates, given the stark statistics. Indigenous women are thirty-three times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence-related injuries and six times more likely to die compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The panel’s composition was publicly challenged by Louise Taylor, Australia’s first Indigenous female Supreme Court judge, highlighting a glaring oversight in a system that continues to grapple with the legacies of colonisation. The sole Indigenous panel member, Dr Todd Fernando – a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne and a descendant of the Kalarie peoples of the Wiradjuri nation – acknowledges the honour of his appointment. Yet, he shares the disappointment over the lack of Indigenous female representation, a sentiment he voiced from the outset.

Dr Fernando’s appointment has not been without controversy, as he faces daily criticism for accepting a role on a panel that many believe should have included an Indigenous woman. His inbox overflows with messages questioning the decision, yet he maintains that such queries should be directed at the government, not the panel members.

The panel’s current lineup includes notable figures such as journalist Jess Hill, Dr Leigh Gassner of Victoria Police, journalist Dr Anne Summers, academic and lawyer Elena Campbell, and Dr Zac Seidler of Movember. Their expertise is undeniable, but the question remains: Can a panel truly grasp the nuances of Indigenous women’s experiences without their direct input?

Hannah McGlade, a vocal advocate, insists that while Indigenous men’s involvement is crucial, it should not replace the voices of Indigenous women. The sentiment is echoed by Antoinette Braybrook, a Kuku Yalanji woman and CEO of Djirra, who argues that the exclusion undermines the principle of self-determination and perpetuates a pattern of neglect by the government.

The panel’s oversight is emblematic of a broader issue: the ongoing impact of colonisation on Aboriginal women. It reflects a historical pattern of marginalisation and raises critical questions about inclusivity and representation in policymaking. As the panel embarks on its mission to address domestic violence, the absence of an Indigenous woman’s perspective is a stark reminder of the work that remains to be done in reconciling Australia’s colonial past with its present and future. The government’s response to this controversy will be telling, as it has the potential to either bridge or widen the gap between policy and the lived realities of First Nations women.

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