The past few years have seen a lot of heat but little light shed on the role that Aboriginal adults, particularly men, can play in addressing the issue of s-xual abuse in their communities.

At its worst much of the reporting and commentary has been sensationalist, untruthful and grossly offensive to the vast majority of Aboriginal people that have never raised their voice or hand in anger against a child.

Crikey has recently examined several of the important issues raised by the Wild/Anderson Little Children Are Sacred report but of all the issues considered therein perhaps the most constructive concern the Report’s discussion of and recommendations relating to the future -– how communities will prevent further abuse.

Much of the recent discussion about measures to address child abuse in the NT has been narrowly focused through a harsh and punitive bureaucratic prism -– condign punishment for the offender, removal of the child from the ‘abusive’ community and summary withdrawal of hard-worn citizenship entitlements. Some proposals had contained elements with merit but many were plain stupid and born of ignorance or barely-concealed racism. Few saw any constructive role for Aboriginal men.

To their credit Wild and Anderson, by the simple act of taking the trouble to sit down in the dust and talk with Aboriginal men and women, found another way. One that draws on the strengths of individuals and their communities and draws on the most important law for most Aboriginal people in the Territory, their own:

Myth: Aboriginal men do not have an important role to play in preventing child s-xual abuse.

The Inquiry was pleasantly surprised to meet with groups of up to 60 men in some communities. The men with whom the Inquiry met appeared sincere in their abhorrence of child s-xual abuse and were keen to do something about it.

However, it was a common theme in virtually all places visited by the Inquiry that Aboriginal men felt disempowered. Aboriginal women have been speaking out about issues like s-xual abuse and requesting assistance for decades…

Many of the women with whom the Inquiry spoke said they needed their men to join with them in dealing with this problem. As one Yolgnu woman said: “Our communities are like a piece of broken string with women on one side and men on the other. These strings need to be twisted together and we will become strong again. (Report, p. 57)

And:

The Inquiry found that at many community meetings, both men and women expressed a keen desire to be better informed about what constituted child s-xual abuse and the health, social and legal responses to it. However, people did not want to be talked at. They wanted to be able to enter into a dialogue in their own language through which they could develop this understanding, with information, assistance, support and time being given by the relevant agency to facilitate this process of learning. (Report, p. 74)

Having heard and recorded what Aboriginal people had to say about child abuse and what they wanted to do about it, the Report points to local, community- based solutions:

…high profile Aboriginal men and women…should be engaged and actively participate in educating communities about child s-xual abuse, and support the development of community norms of appropriate s-xual behaviour for young people and adults.

Aboriginal Elders, respected people and “champions” need to speak out against s-xual abuse, set appropriate norms of behaviour and participate in community education and awareness as well as championing the positive actions of communities to protect their children. (Report, p. 158)

And they point to the injustice inherent in solutions driven by distant decision-makers. Quoting a remote area health professional, the Report notes:

“It’s patently unfair to continually say to Aboriginal people to take responsibility for their problems while at the same time always interfering and overriding their decisions and authority.”

The Inquiry recognises the significant challenge for bureaucrats and politicians to avoid reverting to the familiar habits of seeking to control, incorporate and assimilate. The Inquiry takes the view that the government must offer realistic and useful support for local initiatives…

…the Inquiry believes there needs to be a process of “de-colonising” attitudes (Libesman 2007) and developing new policies that recognise both Aboriginal strengths and deficiencies and work to support the former and provide substitutes for the latter. (Report, p. 53)

What Wild and Anderson have found is that Aboriginal people have their own solutions to these problems –- they just want the time, the means and the support to consider and implement them properly.

But in these times, when Aboriginal people are perhaps more demonised, patronised and marginalised than ever, the likelihood that their voices will be heard diminishes by the day.

Maybe in ten years there will be another report, addressing some more myths:

Myth: Australian politicians and the media care about Aboriginal people at all times, not just when a headline beckons.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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