I welcome the release of the report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse but am saddened by the all too familiar stories of abuse underscored by government inaction and policy failure.
Last June, I released a report, Ending family violence and abuse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, which outlined previous research, but more importantly, practical ways forward to address the issue. While not all of the sexual abuse discussed in the Northern Territory report refers to violence perpetrated by family members, I believe many of underlying issues are similar.
I identified 10 key challenges in addressing family violence. These also need to be seriously taken up if we are to combat the problem of child sexual abuse.
1. Turn government commitments into action:
Governments have been making commitments to address family violence for some time already. What we need is concerted, long-term action that meets these commitments.
2. Indigenous participation:
This action must be based on genuine partnership with indigenous peoples and with our full participation.
3. Support indigenous community initiatives and networks:
There are significant processes and networks already in place in indigenous communities to make progress on these issues. We need to support them to lead efforts to stamp out violence, including by developing the educational tools to assist them to identify and respond to family violence.
4. Human rights education in indigenous communities:
There is a need for broad-based education and awareness-raising among indigenous communities. Working with communities to send strong messages that violence won’t be tolerated, that there are legal obligations and protections, and that individuals have rights, are critical if we are to stamp out family violence.
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5. Don’t forget our men and don’t stereotype them as abusers.
Family violence is fundamentally an issue of gender equality. We need strong leadership from women, but we also need the support of indigenous men if we are to make progress in stamping out violence. Indigenous men need to model appropriate behaviour, challenge violence and stand up against it, and support our women and nurture our children.
6. Look for the positives and celebrate the victories.
There are good things happening in indigenous communities, even if the national media is not interested in reporting them. We need to confront family violence, but also do so by reinforcing the inherent worth and dignity of indigenous peoples, not by vilifying and demonising all indigenous peoples.
7. Reassert our cultural norms and regain respect in our communities.
Family violence and abuse is about lack of respect for indigenous culture. We need to fight it as indigenous peoples, and rebuild our proud traditions and community structures so that there is no place for fear and intimidation.
8. Ensure robust accountability and monitoring mechanisms.
There must be accountability measurements put into place to hold governments to their commitments. This requires the development of robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. These will also allow us to identify and celebrate successes.
9. Changing the mindset.
We require a change in mindset of government from an approach which manages dysfunction to one that supports functional communities. Current approaches pay for the consequences of disadvantage and discrimination. It is a passive reactive system of feeding dysfunction, rather than taking positive steps to overcome it. We need a pro-active system of service delivery to indigenous communities focused on building functional, healthy communities.
10. Targeting of need.
Let us be bold in ensuring that program interventions are targeted to address need and overcome disadvantage. As it stands, government programs and services are not targeted to a level that will overcome indigenous disadvantage. Hence, they are not targeted in a way that will meet the solemn commitments that have been made. They are targeted to maintain the status quo.
All children deserve protection from abuse. These rights are enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Australia has legal obligations in international human rights treaties to address the disadvantage experienced by indigenous Australians, including in relation to family violence issues and the social and economic conditions that contribute to violence.
Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires that government “take steps to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of rights by all appropriate means”. This obligation means that governments must progressively achieve the full realisation of relevant rights and to do so without delay. Steps must be deliberate, concrete and targeted as clearly as possible towards meeting the obligations recognised in the Covenant.
I support the recommendations put forward by Ms Anderson and Mr Wild. They look at the issue of s-xual abuse holistically and argue for significant coordinated action across diverse and interconnected areas. We need action beginning with improved maternal and child health, through to educational outcomes, family support, housing and prevention services. They recognise that often the victim and offender are one in the same and have called for community-justice mechanisms and programs to aid healing and rehabilitation.
This report highlights devastating problems, but I am heartened that it has also identified well thought-out, comprehensive recommendations. It is now time for action.