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Culture to blame for much of indigenous family violence

With 23 per cent of partner homicide victims in Australia being ­indigenous, it is not time to worry about superficial concerns such as “changing the date”. Let’s prioritise fact over politeness and action over symbolism. Too many lives depend on this.

Vast amounts of taxpayer funds are spent every year on ­addressing this issue, yet very little appears to be achieved in reducing the rates of violence and death.

Nicola Berkovic’s recent report on this in The Australian highlighted that, in the decade to 2016, almost a quarter of partner homicide victims in Australia were indigenous (another 22 per cent were from migrant communities).

  • Heather Nancarrow, chief executive of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, was quoted as saying “the complex drivers of family violence in indigenous communities showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander solutions” were needed “which may differ greatly from non-indigenous solutions”.

Research by ANROWS disputes the overwhelming findings that customary law and cultural influences — in particular traditional “men’s business” — are significant drivers in indigenous violence against women. Instead the organisation suggests the “historical impacts of colonisation” are to blame. This exonerates violent offenders but, sadly, is a conclusion shared by many publicly funded organisations out to tackle indigenous family violence.

Our Watch is another organisation promoting this view, which perpetuates the narrative that ­Aboriginal perpetrators of violence are themselves victims of the brutality of colonisation and therefore cannot take full responsibility for their actions.

Such conclusions are not ­reflective of the experience of we Aboriginal women who have survived within the confines of traditional Aboriginal culture. Those of us who have lived our lives on traditional cultural terms have first-hand knowledge of the cultural drivers of family violence.

As a girl growing up I saw other girls my age reach adolescence and then be married off to much older men while still too young to be legally married under Australian law. I witnessed women being brutally beaten by their husbands, but the cultural acceptance of it was so strong no one besides my immediate family supported the victim or reported the abuse.

Ignoring cultural drivers does not allow for robust examination and debate to take place that may carve out better ways of addressing such a debilitating issue. One has only to look up the book on Ngarra Law to understand not only how traditional Yolngu law accepts violence against women — and make no mistake: this is common for many Aboriginal groups.

The following quote can be found under the chapter titled Marriage Law of the Ngarra Law written by Yolngu elders: “When a promised bride has reached sexual maturity her promised husband may take her for his wife. A 40 or 50-year-old man has spent his life learning the Ngarra law. His new wife might only be 13 to 16 years old and she will be sexually mature but she will not know much about the law. Yet when she marries him, she has the right to learn from him all the law that he knows that took him a lifetime to learn. But if she breaks the marriage law she must be speared through the leg. If the husband does not want to ­punish her then her mother or brother or sister will punish her, perhaps by hitting her with a heavy nulla nulla.”

In the era of #MeToo not a single taxpayer-funded organisation designed to tackle Aboriginal ­family violence, violence against women or child abuse in Aboriginal communities has taken ­umbrage with the writings found within the Ngarra Law book.

Surely a girl 13 to 16 years old cannot be considered able to ­become a wife to a man aged 40 or 50. Do such organisations believe in upholding the human rights of children, given it is stated 13 to 16-year-old Aboriginal girls are considered to be sexually mature? Is it not a human rights violation to spear a girl of 13 to 16 through the leg should she be found guilty of breaking traditional cultural law?

The irony is that ANROWS is undertaking research titled Understanding the Role of Law and Culture in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Communities in Responding To and Preventing Family Violence. Its website states: “Through yarning methodologies and community-led discussions, the project will explore the ways in which traditional law and culture promote social order and aid in conflict resolution, punishment and rehabilitation.”

ANROWS may want to be more reticent before declaring what is needed to fix the problem of domestic violence in indigenous communities. It was established as part of the National Plan to ­Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children 2010-22.

An Australian National Audit Office report found that research funding for this national plan — which includes $8m for ANROWS’s perpetrator intervention stream — has focused mostly on “the experience of people from particular cohorts or in specific contexts with limited emphasis on evaluating which services are working”.

The audit also found that only a “small number of projects focused on reviewing or evaluating a service or service delivery approach”. Perhaps ANROWS has gathered useful information from its consultations with indigenous communities. But, based on the evidence gathered so far, it cannot say def­initively what does and does not work when it comes to ­reducing indigenous domestic ­violence.

Indigenous partner homicide rates are high in comparison with the rest of Australia because of the underlying cultural forces that perpetuate the family violence epidemic. As taxpayers and concerned fellow Australians we should demand our financial contributions towards solving these ­ongoing issues be better spent where common sense prevails, the truth is prioritised, and diligent, evidence-based research forms the basis for problem solving.

This is an edited extract of a speech Centre for Independent Studies Indigenous research director Jacinta Nampijinpa Price will deliver on Thursday in Sydney. For details, call (02) 9438 4377.

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