Family violence in Aboriginal communities
Home Truths: Rethinking Our Approach To Family Violence
The numbers are raw and confronting. Compared to non-Aboriginal people:
- Aboriginal people are between two and five times more likely to experience violence than non Aboriginal people. Aboriginal women are five times more likely to be victims of homicide (ANROWS 2104)
- Aboriginal women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence related abuse (ANROWS 2014)
- An estimated 27% of men and women who experienced violence by a current partner said that children in their care had witnessed the violence (ABS 2006b:11).
Family violence is a serious and complex problem in Aboriginal communities. Although violence affects whole communities, women and children are ‘most likely to be victims of repeated, multiple forms of violence and abuse’ (Blagg 2000). Children who grow up in a violent family may believe that violence is a part of a normal family environment.
There is no one single cause of violence in Aboriginal communities. A constellation of historical, political, social and cultural factors combine to create and conceal domestic violence. Some of the factors include dispossession, loss of land, breakdown of kinship systems and Aboriginal lore, entrenched poverty, racism, alcohol and drug use and the effects of past institutionalisation and removal policies.
Aboriginal concepts of family violence
The term “family violence” is preferred by Aboriginal communities because it better reflects the real extent of its impacts, as well as encompassing the range of violence that takes place in Aboriginal communities including physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, sociological, spiritual and economic abuses. Within some Aboriginal communities, family violence occurs against a backdrop of violence which has also taken place at a systemic level and has resulted in harms caused by policies and programs that resulted in the removal of Aboriginal people from their land, community and culture and denied them their basic human rights. This expansive framework for understanding violence in Aboriginal communities brings highlights the historical and trans-generational experiences of violence, which continue to have influence today.
Gender and Family Violence in Aboriginal communities
Within practice settings, mainstream understanding and responses to domestic violence are mostly informed by a framework that recognises violence as the result of gender imbalances and oppression of women by men. This subordination is made possible by patriarchal social structures and norms that place men in more powerful positions than women. Even though Aboriginal men are more likely to perpetrate violence that Aboriginal women, the notion of patriarchy and gendered relations is different in Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal woman do not share the same sense of sexism and patriarchal oppression as non-Aboriginal women (AHRC 2006). While there are distinct roles for Aboriginal men and women they are equal in terms of their male / female roles. Aboriginal women are not victims of male oppression but assert their place and rights within their family, their kinship group, and community. There is an independence and interdependence between Aboriginal male and females. In Aboriginal societies, gender has an inherent equality – there is men’s business and there is women’s business.
Aboriginal men and family violence
In many kinship groups the role of males in Aboriginal society has been significantly diminished as a result of the process of colonisation. Since the colonial ‘takeover’, the role of men as providers and protectors have been diminished. The taking away of men's roles in the social structure has also contributed in a significant way to the breakdown and collapse of community life. This “redundancy of Aboriginal male role and status is often compensated by an aggressive assertion of male rights over women and children” (Bragg 2000). This disrupts the traditional equality between the gender roles.
Understanding the ways in which colonisation has diminished men’s sense of self and position, does not excuse, condone or diminish violence against Aboriginal women and children. Aboriginal men need to be accountable for their use of violence. However practitioners need to contextualise and be alert to ways in which colonisation has disrupted and corrupted social constructs about how men can relate respectfully and non-violently to women and children. We also need to think about the ways we can work with Aboriginal men who are violent that helps them address the grief, loss and multi-generational trauma associated with the impact of colonisation.
Aboriginal women’s experience of family violence
For Aboriginal women, it is the intersection of racial and gender inequity that create and condone high rates of violence against them and their children. Aboriginal women’s experience is “bound up in the colour of her skin as well as their gender” (AHRC 2006). Women’s fear about losing their children, their fear or reprisal or shame about having experienced violence, unfamiliarity of legal processes, disillusionment with the system, fear perpetrators will be sent to prison and a general lack of support services all contribute to high levels of violence against women in Aboriginal communities and a reluctance to report abuse to authorities. Asking an Aboriginal woman to leave her violent partner may
mean asking her to sever and/or leave, all or a part of her kin, her community and her culture. Asking an Aboriginal woman to take legal action may mean asking her to engage with a system that is viewed as “racist, often ignorant of Aboriginal culture and that disproportionately questions their credibility, their alcohol and drug use, and their sexual behaviour” (ATSI Women’s Task force on Violence 2000 cited in cited Keel 2004).
Implications for practice
The prevalence and seriousness of family violence in Aboriginal communities means that many Aboriginal children grow up being exposed to or being involved in the violence. It is important that practitioners work alongside Aboriginal men and women to help them protect and keep their children safe. Some of the ways practitioners can do this are:
- Be mindful of your knowledge and behaviours and the stereotypes you may have about Aboriginal family violence. What has informed these beliefs? Have you already made up your mind about the family before knocking on their door?
- Be mindful of the ‘white privilege and power’ that you and the system embody. Do not underestimate the potency and significance of child removal in Aboriginal communities. Understand that Aboriginal men, women and families have very real reasons about why they might not trust the system. Many will be deeply afraid of losing their children. Let them know that you are there to help them and support them to keep their children safe and well.
- Make efforts to know and be respectful of the extended family and kinship structure and the roles, responsibilities and obligations embedded within this structure. Ask about who are the most important people to talk to and include in
- safety and risk assessments. Can you approach an Elder or a respected community member to help you work with a family?
- Recognise and respect gender-segregated roles and responsibilities where these exist. When organising meetings, discuss whether talking it is suitable for everyone to talk about family violence together. If family violence is viewed as women’s business and men’s business, it may be important to discuss the issue with men and women separately.
- Where it is requested and possible it may be preferable for men to speak to men and women to speak to women - especially if you are not known by the person or community
- Understand the ways the closeness and connectedness of families and communities can either work towards creating a supportive and safe environment or create pressures for individuals and families in terms of privacy, confidentiality and anonymity
- Many Aboriginal families live in safe and supportive environments, some do not. Within some Aboriginal communities there is intra-racial conflict and violence, feelings of grief, loss and disappointment, child abuse, and suicide. In mainstream society, Aboriginal people are often discriminated against, excluded, stereotyped or feared. These experiences can influence Aboriginal children and parents sense of safety. It is important to understand Aboriginal children’s perceptions and understanding of safety. Ask them about when they feel safe and unsafe? Who makes them feel safe and who makes them feel scared or insecure?
- Get to know the local community and historical experiences.
If the community was the site of previous trauma such as massacres, this can have a real impact on the lives of the Aboriginal people living there today. Get to know and appreciate the different child rearing practices and how you can engage with these practices to help keep children safe. Be willing to explore barriers to parenting given the history of trauma for all Aboriginal people.
Australian Human Rights Commission. (2006) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Addressing family violence in Indigenous communities.
Blagg, H. (2000) Aboriginal family and youth Violence. Paper presented at the Restorative Justice and Family Violence Conference. Canberra.
RANZOC.pdf. Accessed May 29 2015.
Keel, M. (2004) Family Violence and sexual assault in Indigenous communities. Walking the Talk. Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault. Briefing Note 4: September 2004.
Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children (ANROWS). Fast Facts: Indigenous family violence.