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In the past year, the im­pact Me Too has had on the lives of Indige­nous women has been sub­ject to sparse de­bate – be­yond Mean­jin’s con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion to strike out its Tur­rbal lan­guage masthead in favour of “#MeToo” for a spe­cial edi­tion, seem­ingly with­out ref­er­ence to any Indige­nous women. The aware­ness raised about the harms of sex­ual vi­o­lence to­wards women by the move­ment has, of course, been in­valu­able, but its dom­i­nant pub­lic im­age has been one of non-Indige­nous women. Largely of white women. Orig­i­nally, this was a move­ment started by an African-Amer­i­can woman, Tarana Burke, whose work – more than a decade ago – es­tab­lished that this was over­whelm­ingly a vi­o­la­tion of black girls and their hu­man rights.

Burke was fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of women free­dom fighters, in­clud­ing Rosa Parks, whose in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the 1944 rape of Recy Taylor in Alabama re­sulted in the Mont­gomery bus boy­cott, which in turn pro­pelled Martin Luther King, Jr to promi­nence. Slav­ery in the United States had per­mit­ted the wide­spread sex­ual vi­o­la­tion and atroc­ity of African-Amer­i­can women and girls, and the civil rights move­ment was very much pre­cip­i­tated by en­demic rape of black women.

In Aus­tralia, and world­wide, rape and sex­ual vi­o­lence per­pe­trated against indige­nous women was a key tool of coloni­sa­tion, as was the per­pe­tra­tion of racist be­liefs and stereo­types that were deeply abu­sive of indige­nous women. As his­to­ri­ans Heather Goodall and Jackie Hug­gins de­scribed, “The pro­cesses of coloni­sa­tion across the con­ti­nent be­gan vi­o­lently with in­va­sion, mas­sacre and rape, and con­tinue to be violent since that time. Sex­ual abuse of Abo­rig­i­nal women and chil­dren by white men was a well-known out­come of such in­va­sion and in­deed was of­ten a weapon of war.”

To­day, indige­nous women still face far higher lev­els of sex­ual vi­o­lence and abuse than their non­indige­nous coun­ter­parts. Ac­cord­ing to UN Women, one in ev­ery three indige­nous women and girls across the world will be a vic­tim of rape in her life­time. Nu­mer­ous gov­ern­ment inquiries in Aus­tralia, in­clud­ing the

“Lit­tle Chil­dren are Sa­cred” re­port in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, have con­firmed that Indige­nous women and girls have also ex­pe­ri­enced high lev­els of gen­der vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence, at the hands of both Indige­nous and non-Indige­nous men. While the Com­mon­wealth en­acted an in­ter­ven­tion in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, later con­demned by the United Nations as racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, it failed to prop­erly im­ple­ment key rec­om­men­da­tions of the “Lit­tle Chil­dren” in­quiry. As such, there is no ev­i­dence that sex­ual as­sault of women has de­clined in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. The voices of Indige­nous women who speak out against sex­ual vi­o­lence con­tinue to be marginalised by gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing by white women, who be­lieve it is their “right” to make de­ci­sions for Indige­nous women and fam­i­lies.

But the is­sue of vi­o­lence against indige­nous women is in­creas­ingly be­ing recog­nised as a se­ri­ous hu­man rights is­sue fac­ing indige­nous peo­ple, due largely to the ac­tivism of indige­nous women around the world and within in­sti­tu­tions, such as the United Nations. This is dis­tinct from the Me Too move­ment, as we un­der­stand it to­day. In 2016, the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil put vi­o­lence against indige­nous women firmly on its agenda with panel dis­cus­sions by indige­nous women, in­clud­ing Josephine Cash­man and my­self from Aus­tralia, along with the spe­cial rap­por­teur on the rights of indige­nous peo­ples, Vic­to­ria Tauli-Cor­puz. That year, the Hu­man Rights Coun­cil’s work also in­cluded a his­toric res­o­lu­tion on vi­o­lence against women ti­tled, “Ac­cel­er­at­ing ef­forts to elim­i­nate vi­o­lence against women: pre­vent­ing and re­spond­ing to vi­o­lence against women and girls, in­clud­ing indige­nous women and girls”. Sup­ported by Aus­tralia, the res­o­lu­tion ac­knowl­edges the sever­ity of sex­ual vi­o­lence ex­pe­ri­enced by indige­nous women, and the mul­ti­ple and in­ter­sect­ing forms of such vi­o­lence that can­not be sep­a­rated from the wider con­text of dis­crim­i­na­tion and ex­clu­sion that indige­nous peo­ple still ex­pe­ri­ence. Gov­ern­ments have a duty of due dili­gence to pro­tect indige­nous women from this vi­o­lence through all ap­pro­pri­ate means – le­gal and po­lit­i­cal – to en­sure jus­tice, health­care and sup­port ser­vices are pro­vided.

Dur­ing the 2016 Hu­man Rights Coun­cil meet­ing, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment an­nounced the start of its Na­tional In­quiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered Indige­nous Women and Girls, the re­sult of more than a decade of ac­tivism by indige­nous Cana­dian women to ad­dress both the sex­ual vi­o­lence against them and the lives of thou­sands of miss­ing and mur­dered indige­nous women. Canada’s in­quiry will look at re­sponses to miss­ing and mur­dered indige­nous women and their fam­i­lies, which have been crit­i­cised as dis­crim­i­na­tory and a form of state vi­o­lence against indige­nous women.

The ev­i­dence raised by the case of Lynette Da­ley’s mur­der in 2011 makes clear that state vi­o­lence against Indige­nous women re­mains an is­sue here in Aus­tralia as well. Lynette was raped by two non-Indige­nous men and left to die with hor­rific in­juries, but the New South Wales Di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tions twice de­clined to pros­e­cute the men re­spon­si­ble for her violent death. Fol­low­ing crit­i­cal me­dia com­men­tary and protests, charges were fi­nally laid, in June 2016, with those re­spon­si­ble con­victed in De­cem­ber 2017. Writ­ing on the Lynette Da­ley case for The Monthly, Pro­fes­sor Mar­cia Lang­ton raised the per­ti­nent ques­tion: “Is our le­gal sys­tem tol­er­at­ing and even en­cour­ag­ing the femi­cide of Indige­nous women?”

Work­ing with both Curtin and Mac­quarie univer­si­ties, Pro­fes­sor Su­ven­drini Per­era and Pro­fes­sor Joseph Pugliese lead the “Death­scapes” pro­ject. Their re­search seeks to map the cus­to­dial deaths across Aus­tralia – work­ing with partners in the US and Bri­tain to doc­u­ment their re­spec­tive cases – with the goal of ul­ti­mately end­ing deaths in cus­tody. The pro­ject shows that the le­gal sys­tem is both tol­er­at­ing and en­cour­ag­ing Indige­nous femi­cide. Of course, there are many spa­ces and con­texts in which Indige­nous women die out­side the for­mal cus­tody of the state – on the streets, on the open road, in their own homes or at the edges of com­mu­ni­ties. In these spa­ces, the set­tler state’s vi­o­lence is en­acted through di­verse prac­tices, which still ren­der Indige­nous women’s lives un­safe and pro­duce their deaths. Vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence, against Indige­nous women in these dis­parate places is not ac­ci­den­tal or ran­dom, but rather a sys­tem­atic out­come of the logic of set­tler colo­nial­ism.

While the set­tler state dis­torts the rape of black women and si­lences women’s ac­counts of harm, Indige­nous women have not been silent. Black women know the Aus­tralian state was built on such vi­o­lence and that the in­stru­ments of law, the po­lice and courts, can never re­ally be trusted to pro­tect black women’s bod­ies. We know that the Aus­tralian le­gal sys­tem’s tol­er­ance of sex­ual vi­o­lence to­wards Indige­nous women is deeply seated in Aus­tralian his­tory. We refuse to be silent, in­stead giv­ing voice to those who can­not speak, in­clud­ing the many Indige­nous women be­ing in­car­cer­ated – the fastest-grow­ing seg­ment of Aus­tralia’s prison pop­u­la­tion. Of­ten at great per­sonal risk, black women have long been telling their own sto­ries through au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, mu­sic, film and po­etry.

Roberta Sykes, in her book Snake Dream­ing, gave her per­sonal ac­count of be­ing raped as a young woman by white men – an act so clearly based both on her gen­der and racial iden­tity. Sykes’s pow­er­ful ac­count was echoed years later in the work of film­maker Rachel Perkins, as she and Mar­lene Cum­mins told the truth about sex­ual vi­o­lence in the Black Power move­ment in their documentary Black Pan­ther Woman. Lani Brennan broke the si­lence in her book, Lani’s Story, which doc­u­mented how the NSW prose­cu­tor re­fused to pros­e­cute an ex­tremely violent rape against her for at least three years. Dur­ing the trial, she was re­garded as hav­ing fab­ri­cated and in­cited the rape, notwith­stand­ing the ev­i­dence in­clud­ing the se­ri­ous in­juries she suf­fered.

This year, as a mem­ber of the Yirra Yaakin Indige­nous Perth-based play­wrights’ group, I de­cided to work on a short play script about sex­ual vi­o­lence and its im­pact on and mean­ing for Indige­nous women and girls. Ngaarnk was a per­sonal story based on lived ex­pe­ri­ence – the per­sonal sto­ries Me Too has shown can be pow­er­fully trans­for­ma­tive to pub­lic sen­ti­ment. In the Noon­gar lan­guage, “ngaarnk” means both mother and sun, in­vok­ing the Noon­gar cul­tural and tra­di­tional re­spect for the role of women as moth­ers and the need to throw light onto this in­sid­i­ous abuse of women. The work high­lighted the dual ex­pe­ri­ence of Indige­nous women – the racism and sex­ism, which re­sults in wide­spread sex­ual abuse and vi­o­lence, through both the mis­sion-as­sim­i­la­tion­ist his­tory and the Abo­rig­i­nal rights move­ment.

Read dur­ing NAIDOC Week, Ngaarnk was an act of truth-telling that took place in the com­mu­nity and re­jected shame and stigma that typ­i­cally sur­rounds the vic­tims of sex­ual vi­o­lence. Im­por­tantly, it sought to re­flect our un­der­stand­ing as Indige­nous peo­ple

– we heal not in iso­la­tion from each other but in con­nec­tion to and with each other. Break­ing the si­lence sur­round­ing rape is a nec­es­sary act of de­coloni­sa­tion and heal­ing. De­nounc­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence as a vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights is crit­i­cal to our very sur­vival as First

Nations peo­ple.


HANNAH McGLADE is from the Noon­gar peo­ple and is the se­nior Indige­nous re­search fel­low at Curtin Univer­sity.

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