Aboriginal women face triple jeopardy



Intersectionality is the buzzword of western feminists everywhere. Whether it's thrown around to impress progressive friends or upset a racist uncle at Christmas, it is on the tips of everyone's tongues. Yet few seem to understand the origin and purpose of the word, using it as a shallow throwaway to gain social capital rather than working to understand the real-life effects of intersectional oppression on those around them. 

Prison cell image by DanHenson1 via GettyIntersectionality is a concept coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, describing the unique experience of overlapping oppression faced by black women in the United States. Criminologist Chris Cuneen discusses such intersections within so-called Australia* describing the double jeopardy faced by Indigenous women who live under both colonialism and the patriarchy. Throw in capitalism for good measure and you get a sometimes-lethal triple threat.

This concept of triple oppression was developed by black American socialists looking at the ways class, gender, and race intersected during the fight for black suffrage. Since then, while bla(c)k women in both the United States and Australia have been 'given' the right to vote, triple oppression has mutated and evolved to maintain its grip on us even in the modern day.  

One of the clearest examples of intersectional oppression within Australia plays out in the cycle of domestic violence, incarceration, and deaths during and post custodial sentence. Indigenous women are 35 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalised for domestic violence in their lifetime. Importantly, this is not because Indigenous men are 35 times more violent, with the statistic referencing interracial relationships, including the all too familiar story of young Indigenous women with older non-Indigenous men.

These women often realise too late, after having children and becoming financially dependent, that their partners are both misogynistic and anti-Indigenous and had targeted them as young vulnerable teens. So goes the cycle of abuse where children grow up under the weight of a combination of intergenerational trauma and bearing witness to sexist and racialised abuse in their homes, increasing the likelihood they'll become victims and/or abusers in adulthood.

The abuse to prison pipeline provides a direct pathway from domestic violence to incarceration, with an estimated 90 per cent of Indigenous women in prison the victims of domestic violence. Based on this it is unsurprising — yet just as horrifying — that Indigenous women are the most incarcerated group within Australia comprising 34 per cent of the women's prison population despite making up three per cent of the 'Australian' population.

These figures are exacerbated with the intersection of class, which sees the majority of these women locked away for crimes of poverty due to forced homelessness, illness, or unemployment as a result of their abuse. In Western Australia, 64 per cent of women in prison for fine default are Indigenous, locked away for their own poverty despite a court order that they should not serve a prison sentence.


"Whatever the crime, this over-incarceration of Indigenous abuse victims is enabled by racism and sexism."


Such occurrences convey the stark reality under capitalism that the poor are sent to prison where, under the exact same circumstances, the wealthy may pay their way out of criminality. Other discrepancies are evident where, this month, an Indigenous woman was imprisoned for taking a barbeque chicken to feed herself, yet a white woman who stole hundreds of thousands from an Indigenous organisation avoided prison completely

Even where Indigenous women are arrested for violent crimes, they explain they used violence as a coping mechanism for their own victimisation. Whatever the crime, this over-incarceration of Indigenous abuse victims is enabled by racism and sexism, with survivors' trauma compounded when they are locked away into violent institutions for the benefit of the state. 

These statistics grow even more concerning when looking at the impact of Indigeneity and womanhood in relation to black deaths in custody, a crisis dating back to colonisation. Recently released figures show that 33 per cent of Indigenous men who died in custody did not receive adequate medical care. This statistic jumps to a tragic 50 per cent when looking at Indigenous women's deaths in custody. Ms Dhu, Rebecca Maher, and Tanya Day were all Indigenous women who died in circumstances alleged to be related to police violence or incompetence.

However, despite overhwhelming evidence that gender and race intersect when it comes to deaths in custody, zero of 339 recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody specifically addressed Indigenous women. This is true of most law reform worldwide, where proposals are based on the needs of male inmates and transplanted for use to the women's prison population without amendment despite psychologists warning against the irresponsibility of this practice.

Post custody, many women have reported feeling similarly trapped despite their release from the physical institution of prison. This is one of many ways incarceration impacts individuals, families and entire communities long after release — sometimes in fatal ways. Recently, Sisters Inside, run by Debbie Kilroy OAM, reported the death of one of the women they had helped free from prison for unpaid fines.

Due to a lack of research, the prevalence of deaths post custody is unknown. However, given the relatively short sentences given to Indigenous women (providing a smaller window for deaths in custody to occur) combined with nonexistent support for the homelessness, unemployment, child removal and illness that such imprisonment creates, it is inconceivable that this woman's death is an isolated incident.

This trauma is passed generation to generation with domestic violence and incarceration leading to the removal of Indigenous children from their families. Often these children are snatched away from culture and community, placed in foster homes rife with abuse, and the cycle continues.

Gender, Indigeneity and class intersect in a terrifying way, allowing a unique and almost inescapable life of oppression for Indigenous women within Australia. The effects of this triple oppression are passed down generation to generation, with our children born into a potentially lethal life sentence as a result.

*So-called, because Indigenous people are trapped within a colonial language to refer to our own lands even when writing about decolonisation.



Katelyn Jones is an Indigenous student in her final year of law and is currently writing her honours thesis on the over-incarceration of Indigenous women in so-called Australia.

Main image: Prison cell image by DanHenson1 via Getty

Topic tags: Katelyn Jones, Aboriginal Australians, Torres Strait Islanders, Intersectionality, feminism



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Existing comments

Just to show that even the Left can be of service, intersectionality is an exciting field of study, even if its foundational premise is something that has been colloquially accepted by just about everybody for just about always, that individuals are unique. I doubt whether Hayek, with his thesis that people are simply too complex to be managed by supposedly all-knowing state actors, would disagree with the idea of intersectionality, although he would recommend boosting the ability of the individuals to free themselves rather than be the directed clients of the supposedly all-knowing intersectionality ideologues.
roy chen yee | 20 July 2019

Thank you Katelyn for this informative article. We cannot blame ignorance for the injustice that is here before our eyes, in our prisons and on our streets. Writers like you are informing us over and over. What is upsetting is there is no improvement in this last decade. How is it possible within our legal system 90% of Indigenous women in prison are victims of abuse and domestic violence? And you have made me see how unjust even are the studies . . . and law reform that only makes recommendations with men in mind and then adapts it to deal with women. . We need to rewrite the reforms immediately for women and their circumstance . The tragedy of this further is when women suffer the children suffer and it is intergenerational too. Every study or enquiry must look at women first and make recommendations for them first. And adapt them for the men. Good luck with your studeis and your future. You are the hope for our country.
Colleen Keating | 22 July 2019

Th 90% who are in prison and are the victims of domestic violence and abuse are not there because they are victims of violence and abuse perpetrated by others. They are there because the personally broke other laws. If these 90% are indeed known to have suffered violence and abuse which is a crime, how is it that the perpetrators, known to these victims, are not in prison or otherwise punished under the law?
john frawley | 22 July 2019

I am shocked but not surprised by these stories or these statistics & the overall neglect and lack of consideration for indigenous women & extended to women from low socio economic backgrounds.
Marilyn Loveday | 23 July 2019

You seem to suggest that the abusers are not indigenous men but older non indigenous men. Do you have data to support that contention? I am concerned that the circumstances of many indigenous women will not change, as long as we continue to avoid identifying the abusers and project the blame on a nefarious system. The law must protect indigenous woman against abusers and we also need to allocate major resources to targeted, culturally appropriate men’s programs including, education and work options - in order to change the behaviour of both indigenous and non-indigenous abusers.
mike kelly | 23 July 2019

Thanks for this very informative article. So what can individuals do about this? Perhaps this article (with supporting statistics, reports etc) should be sent to Ken Wyatt, Mr Morrison & Mr Albanese, all Magistrates or Judges, and all state Police Commissioners to stop the incarceration of Indigenous Women for minor infractions. Perhaps Legal Officers should be sentencing Indigenous Women to Community Service, Education, Self Help & Mental Help (as needed) Programmes instead of to Jail terms??
Mary O'Byrne | 26 July 2019


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