The landmark report from the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence found that it is crucially important that mainstream organisations are available and skilled to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and community when seeking assistance for experiences of family violence.
There has been a long history of distrust between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and mainstream organisations because of the use of police, schools and hospitals to remove Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. These are places which most Australians consider they can go to for help – this is not the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly women who experience family violence. Too often Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been misidentified as a perpetrator of family violence, rather than a victim, and have ended up in criminal legal systems.
About this guidance
This practice guidance has been prepared for family violence workers who are responding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing family violence. This may include women and children who are experiencing family violence in the context of intimate partner violence, and/ or women and children experiencing family violence in the context of kinship relationships and arrangements.
This practice guidance has been developed by Djirra, written from the perspective of an Aboriginal writer with experiences and input from other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. It is prepared predominantly for family violence practitioners who are not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
A note on language:
We generally use Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people rather than Indigenous in this document. Many people will use Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, Indigenous and First Nations. These are all terms that have been firstly imposed upon us, and then taken up by our communities. When talking about community generally, it is acceptable to use these terms. However, when working with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, it is important to learn how they wish to refer to themselves. They may prefer you to refer to them by the country, language group, clan or mob that they connect to and identify with.
This content is the copyright of Djirra and cannot be re-produced without the permission of Djirra.
Why history matters
The violent processes of invasion and colonisation transformed hundreds of countries on one continent into what we now know to be Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe colonisation is ongoing because of the continuing practices, polices and laws of government that create disadvantage and exclusion of First Nations people from full participation in Australian society.
When the First Fleet arrived in 1788, it brought the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the time in England and Europe. These beliefs were based on racist attitudes towards anyone who was not white European, and sexist attitudes towards women. For women in England at the time, they were not allowed to access education, were not allowed to vote, own property, and were considered only for their worth of bearing and raising children and supporting the men they were married to.
By contrast, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were respected and considered equal to men in their communities. They had specific roles and knowledges that were valued and important to the survival of the community. Violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities occurred in warfare or as a form of punishment for breaking the law. Violence against women within families was not a feature of our communities.
At the hands of invaders, colonisers and settlers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:
- saw their lands stolen and were made trespassers on their own lands,
- were shown disrespect for the customs, systems of governing and boundaries they observed and showed each other,
- had their environments that had sustained them for tens of thousands of years destroyed,
- experienced violence in the form of rape, sexual assault, the deliberate spread of disease and use of poison, physical assault, murder and massacres,
- were forcibly relocated onto reservations and missions where every aspect of their daily life was controlled, including rations, movement and connection with family,
- had identity shattered in being renamed with English Christian names, and language denied in an effort to stop cultural practices,
- saw their children stolen from their own families, forced into adoption or to work as slaves in hard labour roles as domestic servants, farm and stockyard help, usually with no pay, and
- experienced inequality before the law, unable to access the same rights as white Australians.
Today, despite being ‘equal’ before the law, the legacy of invasion and colonisation is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience greater chronic illness, higher levels of mental illness, family violence and shorter life expectancy. We are overrepresented in the youth and adult criminal legal systems, and the rates of removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by child ‘protection’ services is considered a second Stolen Generation or one that never ended.
The ongoing impacts of colonisation on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is multiple. Individuals and communities experience intergenerational and collective trauma. Acts of governments continue to break down culture, families and communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience entrenched systemic disadvantage and racism when engaging with the broader Australian society.
It is within this historical and current context that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience violence.
Tip: Watch the 2008 TV documentary series “First Australians” and accompanying resources for greater understanding.
Understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children’s experiences of family violence
Intimate partner violence is one type of violence within the broader context of family violence within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Aboriginal family violence is described by the Victorian Indigenous Family Violence Task Force (2003) as:
an issue focussed around a wide range of physical, emotional, sexual and social spiritual, cultural, psychological and economic abuses that occur within families, intimate relationships, extended families, kinship networks and communities. It extends to one-on-one fighting, abuse of Indigenous community workers as well as self-harm, injury and suicide.
It is important to understand the difference between Aboriginal family violence, and violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children. It is incredibly important to know and understand that violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children can be from any man. As Antoinette Braybrook, Chief Executive Officer of Djirra, says:
“While the data shows the high rates of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, [it] does not show that the perpetrators of this violence are all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men. In fact … Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are hurt by men from many different cultures and backgrounds. So, when we talk about the gendered nature of violence against our women, it’s not about demonising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men or labelling them all as perpetrators of violence. It’s just about calling out violence for what it is, and that’s violence against women. And this is not just an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander problem, but it is our business.”
Sadly, the statistics about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children’s experiences of family violence are not good. At a national level:
- 3 in 5 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have experienced physical or sexual violence perpetrated by a male intimate partner.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are nearly 11 times more likely to die due to assault than other women, and are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence.1
- Out of home care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is more than 10 times higher than the rest of the population2
These are sobering statistics. However, because so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are fearful of reporting family violence, we will never know the full story.
Colonisation doesn’t just impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It benefitted, and continues to benefit, white Australians, and sadly, means there are strong racist and sexist attitudes about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women in Australian society today. These can play out in a number of different ways today when we look at the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who survive family violence. They might be:
- The racist judgment that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are difficult and deserve to be abused, that they are not as ‘good’ or ‘important’ as white women and are not worth protecting.
- The racist stereotype that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are abusive.
- The racist assumption Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are liars, and should not be believed, especially if they claim they are abused by white or other non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men.
- The racist assessment that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are bad mothers and should have their children taken if they cannot protect their children from family violence.
If we look at the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, they have been painted as bad mothers by successive government policies. The Stolen Generation, which saw the forced removal of children from their mothers, was based on racist ideas about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their unsuitability of being mothers, as well as a desire to ‘breed out’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Ironically, many girls who were stolen were sent to work as domestic servants in white households, often raising that household’s children.
Tip: Seek out the documentary “Servant or Slave”, 2016, 58 minutes
Culturally safe and respectful practice
Knowing the historical context and understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s experiences of family violence goes a long way to providing a culturally safe and respectful service.
Robyn Williams explains cultural safety as the creation and provision of:
‘an environment that is safe for people: where there is no assault, challenge or denial of their identity, of who they are and what they need. It is about shared respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and experience of learning, living and working together with dignity and truly listening.3
Practising cultural safety and respect can mean the difference between someone continuing with services or disconnecting, feeling like they aren’t being heard. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, cultural safety means they will not be judged on their identity, or have it questioned, and they will not have racist or sexist assumptions made about themselves, their children or their family and community.
The following are some ways of using cultural awareness and creating culturally safe practices.
|I know that past policies imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have created disadvantage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and families.
|When I engage with my client, I’m going to be aware of assumptions I make about their background and know that it may have been different to mine. Equally, I’m not going to assume that they have experienced every single negative thing in life.
|Listening with respect to learn, not respond.
Open ended questions to gather knowledge.
|I know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come from many different countries and language groups, but that some might not have grown up with that knowledge.
|When I ask my client ‘if they are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander’ I will not assume they know their country or language group.
|Ask questions without assumption – ‘is there a country or language group you are connected to or identify with?’
|I know in Aboriginal culture, ties between what Western culture terms as ‘immediate family’ are important.
|When I ask my client about their family and who is important to them, I may be told about extended family members, people who aren’t necessarily ‘blood’ relatives but who are kin and still important.
|Ask about who the important people are in a client’s life. Avoid assumptions about upbringing and Western familial structures.
Imagine you are experiencing family violence. You’ve worked up the courage to call a service to get some information. You go in for your appointment, and the worker you are meeting with starts making assumptions about you based on your background, your appearance, your skin colour. They start making negative comments about your community.
How does that make you feel? Are you likely to continue with that worker and that service?
Tools and resources
This self-directed learning guide has been prepared by Djirra in partnership with Safe and Equal, for family violence workers who have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women as their clients.
This resource has been prepared by Djirra. Djirra (formerly the Victorian Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service) was established in 2002 to respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing family violence.
Djirra (meaning ‘reed’ in the Woirwurrung language of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation) is an Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation. It is managed and governed by Aboriginal people and employs a high number of Aboriginal staff members. It is an organisation specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing family violence. However, given the rates of family violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, it is overwhelmingly women and their children who access Djirra’s services.
Djirra has extensive expertise working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women through the delivery of legal advice and representation services (in family violence, child protection, victims of crime assistance and family law), case management services, cultural and personal supports such as group programs, yarning circles, personal development and counselling. Djirra also has strong connections with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women through the delivery of services such as Sisters Day Out, Young Luv and Dilly Bag which are community-delivered programs focussed on the strength of connection between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
Djirra is also one of 14 members that comprise the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum, which is the only national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victim survivors of family violence and sexual assault.
Djirra operates in metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria and can be contacted in the following ways:
Other relevant guidance and framework recommended by Safe and Equal
Dhelk Dja: Safe Our Way – Strong Culture, Strong Peoples, Strong Families, is an Aboriginal-led agreement to address family violence in Aboriginal communities.
The Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management Framework (MARAM Foundation Knowledge Guide) prescribes roles and responsibilities to Victorian Workforces in recognising and responding to family violence. The MARAM Practice Guides and Resources provides supplementary information to prompt further consideration and support practitioners’ development as family violence professionals.
The Code of Practice: Principles and Standards for Specialist Family Violence Services for Victim-Survivors (Principle 7), establishes standards and indicators on how specialist family violence services demonstrate and uphold the right of Aboriginal people’s self-determination, choice and cultural safety
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Safety Framework- Part 1, is a framework developed to improve cultural safety in workplaces and services.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural safety framework- Part 2: Cultural safety continuum reflective tool, aims to support services to assess at the individual and organisational level their cultural safety competence and capabilities.
- These statistics are drawn from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, 2018, also reported in Wiyi Yani U Thangani, Women’s Voices Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future, Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020
- Reported in Wiyi Yani U Thangani, Women’s Voices Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future, Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020
- Robyn Williams, ‘Cultural Safety – what does it mean for our work practice?’ (1999) 23(2) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, p. 213