DAY SEVEN: The sisterhood – reflections on the challenges and strengths of working with First Nations women’s experience of personal trauma – colonisation, displacement and violence 

Today’s piece features an interview with Mareese Terare and Rowena Lawrie, who work with First Nations women and their personal trauma of colonisation, displacement, and violence. Their powerful interventions demonstrate the enduring impacts of coloniality, displacement among First Nations’ community, and the strength from stories of women resisting violence everyday.

An interview with Mareese Terare and Rowena Lawrie

Featured image credit: Mareese Terare

What does this year’s Blogathon theme mean to you?

Rowena: What it means when you don’t have basic human rights like a safe landing place, sense of belonging and security is disconnection, increased safety risks and no safe place. There is an assumption that Australia is the “land of the lucky”, the “land of the free”, but we know that Australia is also a country stained with murder, genocide, child trafficking and racism. Not everyone has a “safe landing” in Australia either – I am also considering the number of people that were trafficked to Australia in the last year, women who are exploited for labour and sex crimes. Women of colour and culture.

Displacement has been a long theme for Aboriginal people, including families like mine. It impacts on connection, safety, security, parenting, relationships and a sense of belonging, which is a fundamental human need, and culturally important.

This Blogathon creates a safe and necessary space for many narratives, for many voices – that is so important. It is vibrant and revolutionary to have lots of voices talking about gendered violence.

Mareese: Many women looking for safety are forced to move from their country, town and family, and are displaced as a result.  Women who have migrated often experience racism in this country, and this directly affects First Nations women. There are also challenges of intersectionality – multiple intersecting experiences of discrimination in the lived experience of these women. From a First Nations perspective, having a voice when you don’t have those connections is hard. This Blogathon gives voice to so many women who don’t have a voice.

How has colonisation, displacement and family violence affected your lives and the lives of the women your work with?

Rowena: In our ways of being, kinship systems and lore protect women and we had criminal sanctions to deal with people who harmed. Those sophisticated systems of safety in our cultures were impacted by colonisation and legislations that offered no safeguarding again violence– we know this because the violence has not decreased, but has gotten worse.

In a colonised world my safety is compromised. In a colonised world, there are increased risks as family kinships systems are impacted. In a world of displacement, I can become isolated from my family.

Violence operates well in contexts of isolation and racism. The systems that are now in place to protect women from violence are flawed and are certainly not always culturally safe. If I seek support from the structures that exist, I can experience further discrimination and access issues. The systems that are designed to help are also the systems that harm Aboriginal people. I see women trying to navigate these systems, and sometimes they are judged and fear further consequences such as “intervention” by child protection services. Sometimes women will live in violence and keep their children safe at the same time. It’s a tremendous burden on victims, who need support, not judgement.

Mareese: Knowing about the prevalence of gendered violence in our lives gives me the capacity to make women’s needs visible. We did a First Nations women’s workshop two weeks ago and heard horrendous stories of human rights violations. What came through was the fire these women have in their bellies – they won’t tolerate it. This is tribal and comes from our ways of knowing.

When women connect, and their philosophy is about coming together as sisters to fight domestic and family violence (DFV), they are very strong. It is so important when working with DFV to have spaces to connect to resist the violence and the impacts of colonisation. Women have been doing this forever and they are powerful in it.

What are some of the strengths and challenges of doing this work?

Mareese: We were exhausted when doing this workshop, but it is through survivor stories that we can continue this work. It’s a challenge having lived experience, but listening to those women’s stories and their strength is empowering. When you have lived experience, you have empathy, but it is important to honour your own story and not allow it to influence that engagement. Getting to that place comes with good therapy and good supervision. There is always a challenge to separate the two.

Rowena: The challenges of doing this work are enormous for services and women. It is hard to know where to start. There is:

  • a lack of national commitment and adequate resources for women and children who are escaping violence
  • a lack of consistency in regulations across jurisdictions. This means when women travel over state or territory borders for safety, they do not get the same response from systems
  • racism and discrimination that means difficulty for women to access services – we need funding for culturally safe and trauma-informed service design and delivery. And to add to Mareese’s earlier point about intersectionality – violence in same sex, transgender relationships, and those who live with different abilities, needs additional and specialist services.
  • services that re-traumatise through replicating dynamics of power and abuse resulting in isolation
  • the allocation of resources. It is critical that we have cultural safety and acknowledge that women need safe spaces to connect with other women. It is in these circles of sisterhood and solidarity that safety is valued.

I am often very grateful to work alongside survivors of violence and the services that support them. There are amazing stories of women resisting violence every day – who are constantly assessing their safety and the safety of their children – they live with a sense of terrorism daily and yet are courageous and formidable in their ways of being and how they care for their loved ones. I see Elders, Aunties and strong Aboriginal men stand up to violence and keep families safe,  in line with Aboriginal ways of being, knowing and doing. I see health practitioners, clinicians, counsellors, Aboriginal specialists, lawyers, child protection workers, policy makers and educators, making phenomenal efforts and doing exceptional practice all the time. It inspires me so much. This work has grown me as a woman – I have always worked in this space and will always do so.

What needs to change?

Mareese: I started my work in refuges in 1985 and watched refuges grow in regional towns. Since 2001, I have watched those refuges disappear. Now we question high rates of homicide when government and laws have taken away safety. I would love to see more research into whether an increase in domestic homicides correlate with reduction in safe refuges. We need to look at the reasons why the systems are not responding to First Nations peoples. How many more women need to die? We need safe spaces for women to connect to make sure no one is displaced by violence again. A recent ABC 4 Corners documentary How many more? is a call for action.

Rowena: I think the concerns around national regulations, legislation, and swift responses can be interrogated through a Royal Commission. Right now, we have a government acting like a perpetrator of violence – withholding resources, keeping the harm minimised, holding the narrative and power, weaponizing services against each other. It’s truly disturbing and needs a massive overhaul. What happens when people don’t follow the existing legislations and policies – not very much. There’s no accountability. I think a Royal Commission can really zoom in on what needs to happen nationally.

Authors’ Bios

Rowena Lawrie is the Director (and founder) of Yamurrah, a collective of First Nations clinicians, educators, academics, consultants, who specialise in professional development, supervision, therapy, training, project consultancy and research. Rowena has over 25 years experience as a clinical social worker, has a background in law and justice and a passion for neuroscience. Rowena works with survivors of complex and collective systemic trauma and the clinicians who work with them, and also an interest in research and systemic change. Rowena was raised and lives on Darkinyung country and is a descendant of Wakka Wakka and Wiradjuri nations with her matriarchal lines – Longreach extending to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Mareese Terare is a Bundjalung Goenpul Woman. Her creation story extends from Brunswick Heads NSW to North Stradbroke South East Queensland. Bundjalung from Tweed Heads both sides of the river; Minjungbal northern side and Pooningbah southern side. Goenpul from North Stradbroke Island. Mareese was raised by her mothers who are proud Goenpul/Bundjalung women who taught her the importance of family, love and connections. She is committed to a lifelong journey of embracing and learning about her worldview, by unpacking colonial structures that have impacted greatly on her personal life and the lives of her families.

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