Violence against aboriginal women in Australia: possibilities for redress within the international human rights framework.

Author:Andrews, Penelope
Position::Conceptualizing Violence: Present and Future Developments in International Law

It was a cold winter night in 1989 in a Central Australian

Aboriginal community. Although late, muted sounds of

fighting could still be heard coming from the camps.

Suddenly the screams of a woman rent the air as she ran

towards the nurses' quarters and hammered desperately on

the locked gate. Blood poured down her face and her left arm

hung limp and broken. In close pursuit was a man brandishing

a star picket.

As the nurse struggled to open the gate to admit the woman,

at the same time excluding her attacker, she noticed the

woman's T-shirt. Emblazoned across the front was the

statement: `We have survived 40,000 years.' Yes, but will

they survive the next 40, she wondered.(1)

For Australia's indigenous population there is a desperate struggle for survival; cultural, physical, and economic. For Aboriginal(2) women, the struggle for physical survival has taken on a greater urgency. The violence to which Aboriginal women are subjected has reached epidemic proportions, and it has been argued that it constitutes a continuing violation of human rights.(3)

The problem of violence against Aboriginal women incorporates an array of factors: race, gender, the after effects of colonialism, the minority status of Aboriginal people, the unequal access to societal resources, and consequent unequal development of Aboriginal communities. In addition, addressing this problem demands an appreciation of the differing roles and status of Aboriginal people, ranging from a separate or fringe community to an integrated part of Australian society. This great variety of factors complicates considerably the analysis of the issue of violence against Aboriginal women, because it involves an interplay of all these factors.

All social and economic indicators suggest that Aborigines are the most disadvantaged Australians.(4) Within Aboriginal communities, women fare the worst.(5) This is despite the fact that the role of Aboriginal women was significant in both the public and private spheres of Aboriginal society.(6)

Our knowledge of violence against Aboriginal women has until recently been quite precarious; this subject has been taboo for many reasons, some obvious. Aboriginal women have been reluctant to expose conflict within their communities to outside scrutiny which might not always be sympathetic. They have perceived that such exposure runs the risk of further denigration of their communities from the larger white society.(7) White feminists have been reluctant to engage this issue, for fear of accusations of prioritizing sexism over racism or for creating divisions within Aboriginal communities, and for fear of accusations of perpetuating the stereotype of the predatory and violent Aboriginal male.(8) However, recent reports, which I shall refer to throughout this Article, suggest that the statistics of violence against Aboriginal women require urgent attention.(9) They indicate that Aboriginal women are at far greater risk of being the victims of homicide, rape, and other assaults than non-Aboriginal women.(10)

A consequence of the limited knowledge of violence against Aboriginal women is the scant public attention or education directed to this issue.(11) Moreover, statistics concerning efforts by Aboriginal women to organize against violence is also quite sparse.(12) So too is a thorough assessment of whether the nature and extent of violence against Aboriginal women is increasing, decreasing or taking other forms.(13)

The issues discussed in this Article come with the caveat that there is no intention to portray Aboriginal women as hapless and pathetic victims who exert no agency over their lives. Katherine Burbank vividly describes the resistance of Aboriginal women to violence, and their refusal to submit to victimhood.(14) The issues raised highlight the relentless violence that has been an integral part of the colonial experience, and the havoc it continues to wreak on the indigenous communities, and particularly indigenous women.


This Article addresses the issue of violence against Aboriginal women. Part I concerns the historical violence against Aboriginal people generally,(15) and Part II concerns violence against Aboriginal women in particular.(16) Part III considers how the priorities and perspectives of Aboriginal women and non-Aboriginal women differ in significant ways despite their congruence in others.(17) In particular, the Article evaluates the awkward relationship between Aboriginal women and the largely white feminist movement in Australia as a consequence of these different priorities and perspectives, and suggests how political victories for white or non-Aboriginal women could be translated into gains for Aboriginal women.

The fourth part of the Article refers to the advantages or possibilities, on the one hand, and the limitations on the other, of the utilization of international human rights law and policy by Aboriginal women to confront these questions in a satisfactory manner.(18)

Part V of the Article peruses some local efforts by Aboriginal women to stem violence.(19) Included is a brief reference to some approaches adopted by Black women in South Africa.(20)

The Article's conclusion suggests that these local programs and projects, buttressed by a global human rights discourse that is more accessible than ever before, are far more likely to deal with the issue of violence comprehensively and satisfactorily.

In Australia the narratives of colonialism and racism take a peculiar shape, a distinctly Australian one encumbered by the tyranny of distance.(21) For Aboriginal people, who are marginalized in this geographically marginalized society, the struggle for land rights, recognition of cultural rights, self-management, or other permutations of sovereignty, involves an increasing engagement with the international human rights framework. This marginalization has many sources, a significant one being the demographic statistics. Aboriginal people make up less than two percent of the total Australian population.(22) Their influence in the political process is extremely limited, and they are to a large measure dependent on the support of the larger Australian population. This support reached its zenith on two occasions in recent history. One occurred in 1967 when a national referendum empowered the Australian Commonwealth Government to legislate on all matters pertaining to the indigenous population.(23) The second occasion was a 1992 Australian High Court Land Rights decision, Mabo v. State of Quensland,(24) in which the doctrine of terra nullius, which had been sustained for over two hundred years, was finally jettisoned and the claims of the Murray Islanders to rights to their land were recognized.(25)

But for the most part, the political fortunes of Aboriginal people oscillate between dependence on a benign government often politically stifled by mining interests and conservative groupings (as has been the case for the past two decades); and a government somewhat unsympathetic or outrightly hostile to Aboriginal interests. The latter scenario is the current situation.(26)


    It has been noted that Aboriginal occupation of Australia dates back to approximately 40,000 years ago, during which time Aborigines settled and continuously traversed the continent.(27) It has also been noted that the invasion of Australia and the brutal decimation of the Aboriginal population commenced just over 200 years ago.(28) The history of colonization and the subsequent dispossession of the indigenous population has been well documented.(29) Most of these texts bear testimony to, and suggest reasons for, the dire circumstances within which Aborigines find themselves. Contact with Europeans resulted in the near annihilation of Aboriginal communities, and it has been argued that what underpinned the activities of the settlers (both official and unofficial) was the idea that Aboriginal people would die out as a race.(30)

    The literature on the history of colonization points to substantial resistance on the part of Aboriginal people.(31) However, this did not prevent drastic reductions of their numbers from disease.(32) The denial of access to their land deprived them of food and resources, and interfered with the ceremonial religious practices which were part of their culture and identity. White intrusion on the land made it extremely difficult for Aboriginal people to protect their sacred sites.(33)

    The basis of Aboriginal society and the traditional systems of Aboriginal law--spirituality and kinship--were completely disrupted. The effect of the implementation of the British system of laws was to render Aboriginal people aliens in their own land. More significantly, where they were once self-sufficient, nomadic and hunting peoples, who lived in spiritual as well as economic harmony with the land, this British feat left them without the independence and mobility which was their life-blood.(34)

    This forced immobility resulted in a dependency on European food and welfare rations for survival.(35) With their cultural integrity completely undermined, Aborigines become increasingly vulnerable to European influences, in particular alcohol.(36)

    For women, in addition to the ravages on their communities, colonization deprived them of their status and role within their respective communities.(37) Their status as women also made them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation from the settlers. Most importantly though, the imposition of a highly patriarchal European legal and value system ensured that Aboriginal women would be relegated to second class status within their communities.(38)

    The British colonial administration with its patriarchal attitudes largely rendered Aboriginal women invisible.(39) If traditional Aboriginal society harbored gender inequality, the imposition of the colonial policies cemented this inequality by ensuring that the Aboriginal male view was...

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