Passionate activist … Pam Greer.A girl, yet to reach her 12th birthday, is sexually assaulted by a member of her broader family. She tells no one, until decades later. Others then tell of the same man raping them. He is never brought to justice.
ABORIGINAL women experience sexual assault at six times the rate of non-Aboriginal women, and those of us who work to support them know that this is no exaggeration. However, despite the prevalence of sexual assault in Aboriginal communities, the topic is still taboo. People don’t want to talk about it.
Reporting sexual assault is often seen as ”dobbing an Aboriginal man” to police. Too often the response is to use threats, violence and family and community ties to silence the victim. The victim will be blamed and shamed. She and her family can be subject to payback. Mostly this means threats or acts of violence by the family of the offender against the family of the victim. When sexual assault happens in the family, the victim is often told she is to blame and the offender is excused and protected.
I’m struck by how unwilling communities are to have the public discourse necessary to start working to prevent sexual violence and yet how willing those same people can be to spread gossip about those who have been assaulted, or how quickly they will resort to violence when one of their relatives is accused of perpetrating sexual assault.
I’ve heard of men who have sexually assaulted three generations of women in one family, and no-one says a word against them. I’ve heard of men whose relatives hide them from the authorities, or protect them from retaliation. The same relatives won’t hesitate to lash out physically at any negative word said against their father/uncle/nephew. Sexual assault is hard to talk about for victims and their families because of the power a community has in responding.
To understand this power we first must understand how it is for Aboriginal people. The connection with land, family and where you come from is foundational to who an Aboriginal person is and where they belong. Anything which may lead to rejection by the community is avoided. Reporting sexual assault or even admitting that it happens is seen as striking out against the community. It is a shame that this connection with community cannot be used to reject any man who is sexually violent. Of course as with all societies men are more powerful in Aboriginal communities than women, so any woman who dares to speak out is the one who risks rejection.
Dealing with sexual violence has become a huge challenge for the Aboriginal community. I see it from the perspective of someone with ties to Mudgin-gal, an Aboriginal ”women’s place” at Redfern that provides a safe haven and support for women, girls and their families.
Women come to Mudgin-gal to connect with other Aboriginal women, to seek referral to accommodation, legal or court support services, or to yarn about the issues that may be affecting them or someone they love.
Because of the ”Black Out Violence” campaign that Mudgin-gal and other organisations have been running since 2004, and work by other organisations to prevent violence against women, Aboriginal people are more familiar with the terms ”domestic and family violence”. But getting them to talk about it is another matter.
One of the ways we are addressing this is through the Hey Sis network, a group of Aboriginal women working in their communities to reduce sexual violence.
At a recent meeting we talked about barriers, such as community history. ”When someone experiences sexual assault they will remember how others who tried to report were treated,” one Hey Sis member said. Others talked about fear of police and authorities, as a long-term impact of colonisation as well as drawing on more recent experiences. Overwhelmingly members talked about community support for the perpetrator. This barrier was particularly difficult if the perpetrator was highly regarded in the community, or supported by other women.
Aboriginal communities are hierarchal in their structure. Elders can be very powerful. In some communities men and women are elders with equal standing; in others it may be a few men who hold that status. If elders are protecting perpetrators in their families anyone wanting to talk about sexual assault may be subject to powerful incentives to keep quiet.
Despite the silence and the injustice, there are many Aboriginal women who are helping victims. Some are professionals but more often they are simply women in the community, the aunty that everyone knows they can go to.
Women like Aunty Pam Greer. Ms Greer is a passionate activist and mentor in the field of family violence in Aboriginal communities. ”There are a mountain of reports which shape the direction for individuals, families and communities, such as Closing the Gap, Two Ways Together, Breaking the Silence, and Community Working Party Plans; however, obstacles continue in our work,” Ms Greer said.
Women like Joyce Donovan, an elder in the Illawarra. Aunty Joyce felt so strongly about unveiling the scourge of child abuse that she travelled all over NSW, sleeping on floors and living out of her car, gaining support for marches against child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. She was the driving force behind the establishment of an Aboriginal medical service in Wollongong.
Women like my mother, Dixie Link-Gordon, who has been publicly calling for an end to violence against women in all its forms ever since I can remember. Her passion in ”over the kitchen table discussions” at Mudgin-gal led to Mudgin-gal and NSW Rape Crisis Centre establishing the NSW Aboriginal Women’s Sexual Assault Network. We call it ”Hey Sis, I’ve got your back”.
These women have been the backbone of a system supporting communities in dealing with situations of abuse such as rape, incest and other forms of sexual abuse, as well as domestic and family violence.
We need to empower these women so they are able to continue standing up against sexual violence in their communities. And we need to give them the tools to work within their communities to stop sexual assault from happening.
Hey Sis was launched in September by Sophie Cotsis, the opposition spokeswoman for the Status of Women. In October, the network held its first meeting, bringing together 20 Aboriginal women committed to working against sexual violence throughout Sydney.
These women are opening a can of worms on a highly sensitive problem. Hey Sis network members who speak out about sexual assault risk being the topic of malicious gossip. They may come up against community-wide denial that sexual assault even happens, as well as retaliation or lateral violence.
But Hey Sis network members are committed to supporting one another, to celebrating their resilience, and to acting with respect and dignity to those who have experienced sexual assault. ”Sexual assault is a crime, and if you have experienced sexual assault, you are not alone, you are believed, and there are people like me who will support you,” goes the mantra.
I look forward to the day when I hear the voice of the “Hey Sis” network being spoken in communities throughout Australia.
Yatungka Gordon is a project worker at Mudgin-gal.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.