Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains reference to community members who have died.
It is widely understood that gender based violence disproportionately impacts Indigenous populations in far greater numbers than other population groups (AIHW 2019). Available evidence tells us that Indigenous women are more likely to be the victims of homicide and be hospitalised for injuries sustained as a result of violence (AIHW 2019, Bricknell 2020).
It is important to recognise that despite these statistics and the devastation that violence has brought to our lives and that of our communities, we have not been voiceless on this issue. There are countless examples dating back decades of Indigenous women speaking up and speaking back to the narratives constructed about our victimhood.
For example, the 1986 Women’s Business Report was the first report to ever consult Indigenous women on a national basis on issues impacting them at the time. It was a landmark report that highlighted issues related to violence, and the findings of that report still resonate with Indigenous women’s experiences today as June Oscar the Social Justice Commissioner so rightly highlights in her Wiyi Yani U Thangani Women’s Voices Securing Our Rights Securing Our Futures report released in 2020.
It is as Professor Marcia Langton so aptly put it at the National Safety Summit in September 2021 “Nobody listens to us. They talk over the top of us”. Examples of this exist in several places. Certainly one only needs to read the powerful text by Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson Talkin’ up to the White Woman, now in its 21st year of publication, to see how this has played out throughout our history.
Or contemporaneously to reflect on the 2021 debates on criminalising coercive control where the voices of our women were ‘talked over the top’ even despite us making it plain that the introduction of coercive control laws could detrimentally impact our women and lead to their further incarceration (see Watego, Macoun, Singh & Strakosch 2021). We know this because we have seen the law wielded harshly on our women and we are left to repair its damage.
Taking this a step further, we have seen public vigils, marches in the streets, national displays of mourning, speeches from political leaders decrying the violence inflicted on other women but never our women.
Leaving us to ask: why are our women unworthy of this attention? Why are their lives not honoured or mourned or valued in the same way?
An example of this is the death of Hannah Clarke and her children on the 19 February 2020 – Australia mourned, and our Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared to Parliament that “There are never any excuses – there are none – or justifications for the evil that Hannah and her children experienced – never – not under any circumstances”. Yet, when Aboriginal mother Adeline Yvette Wilson-Rigney was murdered with her two children on the 20th May 2016 there was no similar displays of public outrage. In fact, of the few media articles that were published most focused on blaming Adeline for the death of her children (Cosenza 2021, Dornin 2016, Lee 2016).
This is a common experience, we see the media’s engagement with us as ‘blameworthy victims’ responsible for what has befallen us; or they refer to Indigenous women as angry, aggressive and violent black women; irrespective of context, the harms our women have and continue to endure fail to be seen.
The public fails to empathise with our situations. They fail to support us when we say this is what we need. They in effect silence us. Amy McQuire says ‘silencing often works by not only silencing voices and testimonies of black women but by replacing the ‘silence’ with disclosure that is most palatable to White Australia’. It is most evident in the reporting of what takes place in court rooms, in criminal trials across this country every day.
For example, in the criminal proceedings related to the sexual homicide of Aboriginal woman Lynette Daley, from her death in 2011 through to the conclusion of appeals in 2021 preference was given to hearing and reporting on the offenders version of events in mainstream media outlets (See Cripps 2021). The headlines during this period were nothing short of sensationalist ‘Rough Sex Death’, ‘Beach sex death – Mum of seven died after a ‘wild, drunken beach sex session’, ‘Review for sex death case’, ‘Woman had seizure after “wild sex”: Court’ (See Cripps 2021).
The devaluing of Indigenous women’s worth but also the exaggerated sexualising of our women’s lives and bodies demeans them to the public. Some might say but this case must of be an anomaly, sadly it is not. In Western Australia there is the case of Stacey Thorne who was also a victim of homicide in 2007. At the time of her death Stacey was 22 weeks pregnant. This matter has been traversing the legal system for 13 years. One element of the media reporting around this case was on the alleged offender’s characterisation of the relationship with the victim as secret, and that it was for the purpose of ‘casual sex’. This focus served to diminish and demean the victim’s reputation when she was no longer alive to say otherwise. It was also contrary to what the victim’s family victim’s family reported and knew of the relationship.
Silencing of Indigenous women has also occurred in trials when they have been charged with killing their partners after experiencing years of domestic violence. Many would remember the case of R v Kina – Robyn was an Aboriginal woman who had experienced years of domestic violence and sexual abuse from her defacto partner. On 20 January 1988 Robyn endured yet another beating but today was different – he threatened to sexually abuse her niece if she did not submit to the sex he was demanding of her. Robyn felt she had few options and she stabbed him. She was charged with his murder, she pleaded not guilty, her trial lasted less than a day. Robyn electing not to give or call evidence. She was then sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. Her case would later be the subject of a long campaign to have her pardoned given the miscarriage of justice that occurred on the basis of ‘problems, difficulties, misunderstandings and mishaps occurring in the communication of her instructions to her lawyers’.
Many would have hoped we had learned valuable lessons from Robyn’s case, that systems had reformed, and that Indigenous women are heard and actively represented in such cases in the present. Sadly, I cannot say that that is true. In 2015 Jody Gore was sentenced to life with a minimum non parole period of 12 years for murdering her abusive partner in Western Australia. She, like Robyn, had experienced years of abuse at the hands of her defacto partner. What was interesting in this case was that the defacto partner also had mental health issues that the State couldn’t manage and who were relying in Jody to manage despite the threat of violence towards her. When self-defence was raised at trial it was not successful. It took an extensive campaign led by Associate Professor Hannah McGlade, Jody’s family and others to have Jody released pursuant to a royal prerogative of mercy, which revoked Jody’s sentence but not her conviction (See Deathscapes 2016-2020, Douglas et al 2020).
The institutions referred to in this article are colonial institutions that are not neutral, they are deeply implicated in the continued practice of colonialism and framing of Indigenous women stereotypically, amplifying the precariousness of our lives to the exclusion of all else. They have served to normalise the violence visited upon us. They have also defined who is a worthy victim and who is grievable.
The detachment and indifference with which these institutions engage with the violence that we endure is deplorable. It offers little by way of support to change the status quo. But that is not to say that there is not hope in our women’s stories and futures. Having had the honour and privilege to work with many women over the years, the inspiration and motivation for addressing and responding to gendered based violence is in our communities.
Kyllie Cripps is a Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law and Justice and Co-Convenor of the Gendered Violence Research Network at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Kyllie as a Palawa woman has worked extensively over the past twenty years in the areas of family violence, sexual assault and child abuse with Indigenous communities.