An article published by Perth News on Monday explains that Aboriginal women in Australia are 80 times more likely to be physically and sexually assaulted than non-indigenous Australians. Not twice as likely, or 10 times as likely — but 80 times more likely. At this point, given what we know about the epidemic of violence against women, and especially minority women and women of color, in developing and developed countries, we can be shocked and horrified, but not all together surprised.
This incredible number cited in Perth News is based on recent statistics from the Northern Territory’s (NT) five major government hospitals, where both indigenous and non-indigenous women were admitted for assault. For every thousand non-indigenous women, 0.3 were hospitalized, whereas for every thousand indigenous, 24.1 women were hospitalized for assault (in other words: 80 times more).As the NT’s Children’s Commissioner, Dr Howard Bath, says, “What we are looking at is a disastrous situation in terms of the risk of violence to indigenous women. These numbers are mind-boggling. The rate of abuse of these women is enormously high and children are being exposed to this, resulting in very, very high rates of child neglect."
The perpetrators of this violence are largely Aboriginal men, and “to a lesser extent Aboriginal women and non-indigenous men.”
Dr. Bath cited alcohol, drug abuse, overcrowding and unemployment as the lead drivers of this violence, emphasizing the former most of all.
A NT Member of Parliament, Bess Price, who has lost two of her female family members to domestic violence, maintains that other Australians know of this phenomenon, but are either hesitant to speak up, or outright hostile to those who do. In fact, she herself experienced threats and harassment when she raised the issue.
Truth is, this violence has been going on for decades, with arguably little change. In an essay entitled, “Representing Aboriginal Women: Who Speaks for Whom?” published in 1994, the author writes “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.” That was 20 years ago.
Those interviewed for the recent Perth News piece point out that Australians were outraged over the much-politicized rapes in India earlier this year, with people writing in to their government demanding action. And yet, there seems to be little call for action to address a very in-house epidemic of violence of their very own.
It may at this point be worth very briefly revisiting the historical legacy of violence amongst Aboriginal populations. According to the Women’s Policy Coordinator of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, prior to the arrival of Europeans in Australia “ all Aboriginal people were treated equally; they had different roles but all had equal importance and contributed in significant ways to day to day needs and the development of society.” In addition, while all Aborigines experienced violence at the hands of the colonizers, women in particular experienced “high levels of sexual abuse” by the Europeans.
This brief revisiting is simply to place this contemporary violence in its’ complete historical context — and to discourage any misguided attempts to blame “culture” or “tradition” for the use of violence. It also fills out a story that is not unique to Australia, but one we have seen played out amongst other indigenous, minority and previously colonized populations. Right here in the United States we know that rates of abuse of Native American women are amongst the highest of any group — and are often attributed to substance abuse and unemployment.
African American women have been trying to bring our attention to the alarming rates of sexual assault within their communities: Black Women’s Blueprint is an organization that recently launched a “Truth Commission” to investigate sexual assault against black women. According to their website, while the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) found that 18% of black women experience rape in their lifetime, the Black Women’s Blueprint found 60% of black girls experience sexual abuse before they are 18, and “the Black Women’s Health Imperative released a report estimating 40% of black women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.”
These are shocking and completely unacceptable numbers, whether you are in Australia, or the United States. And this has been going on, without adequate uproar, for far too long. Why is it that we in “developed” countries can collectively gasp in horror at what happened in India, as Americans and Australians did alike, and yet we turn a blind or apathetic eye to what is happening in our own countries?
Violence against women isn’t something happening “over there.” It's happening right here, and its happening all of the time.