Ways of reading sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities

Sex abuse 'rife' in NT communitiesRecent revelations of violent crime among Aboriginal people in Central Australia, and in particular of the sexual abuse of children and women, have caused a furore. While perfectly understandable at one level, they have also induced a weary cynicism in many observers of Indigenous affairs. The problems being highlighted are all too familiar; so is the alarm expressed by politicians, journalists and others. Missing from these intermittent outbreaks of moral panic is recognition that deplorable events are connected to the circumstances in which they occur.   Every few months some kind of exposé sets off outraged calls for action; after intense interest and debate, Ministers and other political leaders make statements and establish inquiries; the media canvass the views of experts and Indigenous leaders, giving the matter a public airing for a few days, perhaps a week. More often than not, the issue then disappears from public view until it is replaced by the next crisis, or until years later, when the spotlight falls again on the same problem.   Current focus is on the sexual assault of children, an incendiary topic. Stories of appalling violence and squalor also appear often, but many other types of social trauma and dysfunction do not attract the same degree of attention. Yet they demonstrate a pattern that should engender deep shame and urgency throughout the Australian polity.  The assaults described by Nanette Rogers are at the extreme end of a spectrum of antisocial, dysfunctional, pathological behaviours that many Indigenous people endure. Many spokespersons and observers have described and decried them for years. Dr Rogers described the crimes as beyond most people's comprehension and experience. She is correct: these acts are indeed grotesque.

Cleared OutHowever, three points are worth emphasising. First, although frequent, these acts are aberrant; no Aboriginal society, indeed no known society, condones the sexual abuse of children. Atrocious as they are, such crimes occur from time to time; they are often signs of individual or social psychopathology. Second, one need only look at the statistics for Australia and elsewhere in the world to realise that child sexual abuse is not unique to Indigenous Australians. The prevalence of violence and abuse among Aboriginal people across the country is a particular tragedy. Finally, if sexual and violent crime are beyond the comprehension and experience of most Australians, so too are the conditions in which far too many Indigenous people live. People tend to lay the blame for unacceptable behaviours simply on Aboriginal culture or Aboriginal men, ignoring context and underlying causes. Indigenous cultures have been drastically transformed in the time since colonisation. Within living memory, the frequency and intensity of violence and other antisocial behaviour have escalated. The lack of police in many communities has become a problem only in recent years; police used to be rarely needed. Even today, although many communities are not trouble-free, police presence is unnecessary for them most of the time. It is also short-sighted to focus on men; while they are disproportionately the perpetrators, many are also victims. Sexual abuse and violence occur across cultures, societies and classes. But considerable evidence suggests that a high incidence of such behaviours is associated with marginalised populations, living in conditions of poverty, and inequality. These conditions prevail in much of the Australian Indigenous community; they must be addressed if meaningful change is to occur. To recognise the social conditions in which crimes are committed is not to excuse or explain them away. But it is foolish to ignore the context, and pointless to apply narrow and short-term solutions. Thus, although more police in some of the most troubled locations might inhibit some perpetrators, protect some victims, or at least speed up the response time, they will not eliminate the problems. Similarly, banning alcohol would ameliorate conditions in some places (many Indigenous communities already impose such bans within their borders), but this often shifts the unwanted behaviour to other places, rather than putting an end to it.  ANTaRIt is not to diminish the significance of sexual abuse of children to say that there are communities where most children are safe most of the time, even though a plethora of physical and social ills are rife. Among the Aboriginal people I know best, the occurrence of sexual abuse and family violence is matched, or outstripped, by incidence of unemployment, inadequate housing, abysmal education outcomes, teenage pregnancy, low birth-weight babies, self-harm, renal failure, and premature preventable deaths (accompanied by unrelenting grief). Matters like the high rate of poor dental health among young Indigenous people seldom attract the sensational attention given to crime. Yet, tooth loss is common nationwide and is not simply a cosmetic problem: it leads to, or exacerbates, many diseases.  ANTaR - Clueless White MalesAboriginal people in remote communities are often bewildered by the situations they face. They are also anxious to protect family members from shame or harsh punishment. Their reactions may be misguided, by some lights, but they deal daily with momentous issues, including the recurring loss of family members to death, prison, and hospitals.  Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough’s decision to hold a summit meeting with State and Territory leaders to address the breakdown of law and order is, doubtless, well-intentioned, but unlikely to achieve lasting improvement. The new Minister is keen to do, and to be seen to be doing, something. He might begin by reviewing some of the many reports from past inquiries, notably the Underlying Issues Reports of The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the Bringing them Home Report. They contain mountains of data on the problems that beset Indigenous people, including violence and sexual abuse. They also contain recommendations, many of which have never been implemented. Of those that have been acted upon, many have been ineffective.  More intergovernmental cooperation is desirable. But it would be more productive to seek to trace the patterns and causes of social ills plaguing Indigenous Australians, than to focus on the current scandal. A more considered, over-arching set of solutions, that recognises the problems to be complex and inter-connected is needed. If we address each issue as it arises, rather than approaching the root causes of problems, we can bring about only short-term solutions. (There is a multiplicity of causes and no single action will work; quick-fix approaches cannot be effective in an enduring meaningful way. The Prime Minister says that money is not the answer. But to make things better will be costly and require time. To cite just one example: in many remote Indigenous communities, such as the ones in which I have worked, English is a second language, yet there is no provision for the teaching of English as a second language in their schools. Consequently, children begin their education with a handicap which persists. Along with other disadvantages, it leaves most of them irremediably far behind their peers in the rest of Australia. The provision of ESL programs and educational services that recognise Aboriginal children’s language limitations should match what is available to immigrant children accepted into Australia. It could make an immense difference. Inequality, Identity and Future DiscountingThis would be expensive. But anything less would be inequitable, given that in Indigenous communities, limited literacy and low levels of educational achievement are the rule rather than the exception. Similarly, people often speak of Indigenous unemployment, and it is indeed a major issue. However, even if whole populations were shifted to places where workers are needed, most would not succeed in gaining employment, because they are ill-prepared owing to poor literacy, years of idleness, and dependence on welfare.  

Reformists ignore the extent of chronic poverty in most Indigenous communities. Instead of encouraging increased understanding and a collaborative approach, they issue admonitions about how much money is being spent. This is a cruel response to a people who have largely been excluded from the bounties of this rich nation. No amount of blame-shifting will erase Australia’s history of colonisation, dispossession, racism and discrimination. That history, including the ‘solutions', policies and corrective measures that have been introduced over many decades, has included many harmful, even catastrophic errors. There is no simple and quick remedy; systemic problems need systemic solutions.



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Existing comments

I agree that there is no quick fix; any solution has to involve input from, and the cooperation and acceptance of responsibility of the aboriginal communities involved.

Lenore Crocker | 13 June 2006  

This article is a good summary of the well-worn defense for Aboriginal problems. It offers a valid assessment of the situation, but no real solutions. ESL in remote communities is suggested as a corrective but the violence and sexual abuse is widespread and only a fraction of the Aboriginal population has English as a second language or live in remote communities. It must be clearly understood that alcohol, boredom and a lack of law are key factors in this violence and abuse and the psycopathy that plagues some many, but not all, communities.
Another factor is the acephalous (leaderless) nature of traditional Aboriginal culture, which persists in contemporary culture and denies the communities clear authority structures. High levels of individual freedom were once kept in check by the Elders, the Law and social structures. Now there is little social structure other than the extended family, fewer and fewer Elders and only whitefella law to hold people in check.
Tonkinson is right in stating that more, not less, needs to be spent on this national problem. There has to be a strong police presence in all Aboriginal communities, but this has to be more than outsiders coming to enforce whitefella law or arrest more people. It has to be a cooperative between Aboriginal people seeking to restore peace to their communities and police recruited to be primarily social workers. But soical workers who have an understanding of contemporary Aboriginal society and carry a big stick.

Joe Mattner | 15 June 2006  

I agree with what is being said but we must also realise that there are many dysfunctional families in the wider community and must look at the whole area of personal development and healthy relationships

John Ozanne | 17 June 2006  

Great to hear such an informed opinion, after the recent weeks of political and media talk. There are no easy solutions to the difficulties Aboriginal people face today, and there are most certainly no quick solutions. I worry that these intermittent inflammatory media interests serve only to undermine the one hope we have of racial harmony and equality; cross-cultural respect.

Michelle Scerri | 18 June 2006  

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