Almost one year to the day has passed since the previous Federal Government imposed its “emergency intervention” upon 73 Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. While much has been written and said about the intervention — particularly the lack of community consultation, engagement and participation — and the funding spent to-date, surprisingly little has been said about the expected case findings of s-xual abuse and s-xual health outcomes as a result of the intervention, although Aboriginal people have copped a hiding from the media on these two issues.
Over the last twelve months we have seen a dramatic shift in the way these issues are reported. Under a warm, cosy and protective blanket safeguarded by the way the intervention was (mis)framed, mainstream journalism has, for the most part, had free reign to misinterpret and misreport s-xually transmissible infections (STIs) among young Aboriginal people in the NT.
Media have routinely linked STI data to child s-xual assault despite rates of STI not being a measure or indicator for the level of s-xual assault within a community. They have also managed this without ever having to provide justification for their far flung, drawn out and incorrect conclusions. Sensational headlines including STDs on the rise in black kids, “venereal disease common among children” and “saying sorry won’t stop an STD epidemic” are used to sell papers and misinform the general population.
S-xual abuse is abhorrent, no matter where it occurs, and men and women in the Northern Territory in non government and government agencies are working together to deal with the many and complex causes. We should also remember that while the media’s recent focus has been almost exclusively on Aboriginal Australia, s-xual abuse is not anything unique to remote Aboriginal communities.
Results from the Australian Study of Health and Relationships published in 2003 which surveyed 19,300 Australians on a range of issues related to s-xual health and relationships found that 10% of women and close to 3% of men had been forced or coerced into unwanted s-xual activity when they were 16-years-old or younger. In the NT over the last twelve months, the expected surge of s-xual abusers hasn’t eventuated.
Far from the truth, we have also seen the portrayal of all Aboriginal men as s-xual abusers and uncaring with little or no respect for the women in their lives. Aboriginal men within remote communities and the NT have been subjected to vilification in its most vile form since the beginning of the Intervention. Thankfully, there are Aboriginal men who still have the emotional, spiritual and cultural energy to counter these damaging misrepresentations.
S-xually transmissible infections within the NT and many other remote communities across Australia are an issue of major concern, yet very little of the appropriated Intervention budget has been allocated to address this issue. Rates of notified STI in many of these communities remain among the highest in the developed world. Shameful for a country such as ours. And while s-xual abuse and STI rates are largely two separate issues they are often linked by mainstream media.
So why hasn’t the intervention addressed s-xually transmissible infections if they are such an issue? Last year in the NT of all chlamydia and gonorrhoea notifications reported among Aboriginal people aged less than 16 years of age, 96% of chlamydia and 94% of these gonorrhoea notifications were among people aged 12-15 years and more than 80% of these infections occurred among 14 and 15-year-olds.
Similar to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, the majority of chlamydia (93%) and gonorrhoea (88%) notifications notified among under 16-year-olds, occurred among 12-15 years olds. Very few cases occurred in people aged less than 12 years in both populations. It is highly likely that the rates of STI notified among people aged 12-15 occur as a result of early s-xual debut among similar aged peers rather than as a result of child s-xual assault.
The reality is that until STI rates are reduced in remote communities, the chances of acquiring an STI will remain high. Further fuelling the attention in the NT on STI rates is that for Central Australia, it is one of the few places in Australia where regular programs for testing of STI occurs, making rates appear much higher than anywhere else in the country.
With the change in political leadership to a more consultative, thoughtful and compassionate modus of operandi, it is hoped by many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians that the next twelve months will see more constructive consideration given to the proper resourcing of Aboriginal primary health care services. That includes the provision of s-xual health services for adolescents, and a reappraisal among those in mainstream media of their role as providers of factual, constructive information rather than ideologues harming the most socially disenfranchised and disadvantaged communities in our country.
James Ward is Program Manager, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research at the University of New South Wales.