By Hannah McGlade
Every year the United Nations marks March 8 as International Women’s Day as a day of celebration for women across the world and an opportunity to mark progress towards the realisation of gender equality.
Sadly, the situation in Australia for Aboriginal women gives little cause to celebrate.
The widespread incarceration of women experiencing very high levels of family or partner violence along with increasing removals of children shows we have a long way to go in our fight to ensure the human rights of Aboriginal women are respected.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Dubravka Simonovi, recently toured Australia to assess the “systemic causes of gender-based violence against women and the situation of women who encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence”.
Aboriginal women encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence based on both race and gender.
This was most evident in the case of Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old West Australian Yamatji woman who died in a Port Hedland police cell three days after being taken into custody for non-payment of fines.
Ms Dhu sustained injuries at the hands of her partner shortly prior to being arrested.
But although she and her grandmother — who contacted the police with her fears — told police officers she had been “flogged” by her partner and sustained rib fractures as a result, they refused to acknowledge her as a victim, deciding against all the objective evidence that she was “faking” it.
The circumstances of Ms Dhu’s death, captured on CCTV, showed the deadly consequence of gender-based violence amplified by individual and systemic racism that permeated the responses from the police.
The police did not act alone
Ms Dhu was taken to the hospital on three occasions but the non-Aboriginal nurses and doctors did not perform basic medical procedures, such as the taking of a temperature or x-rays, which would have revealed her serious infection and illness.
Instead, medical staff accepted police opinion her condition was merely “behavioural” and sent her back to the cells where her condition of sepsis infection deteriorated before she died.
It is important to note Aboriginal people across Australia have reported experiencing racism in hospitals and healthcare services.
State Coroner Rosalind Fogliano, who examined Ms Dhu’s death, described the conduct of police and health professionals as “inhumane” and “unprofessional”.
However, she did not refer any of the police or health personnel to the state prosecutor or any regulatory body.
Most of the officers involved in Ms Dhu’s death have since been promoted. No medical staff faced any disciplinary actions.
The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee made extensive submissions concerning gender-based violence and racism, Ms Dhu’s intersectional identity and vulnerability — as Aboriginal, woman, victim, prisoner — but this was ignored by the coroner.
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women across Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Canada have united to support Ms Dhu’s family, advocating for the dismantling of institutions perpetuating structural and systemic violence and abuse.
We do not agree with the lack of justice afforded to Ms Dhu. As the Aboriginal girls choir of the Pilbara ‘Marliya’ sing, “Now they’re whitewashing away the evidence”, asking us “Did Dhu die for nothing? No she didn’t!”
On International Women’s Day, stand with us
At a meeting hosted by Sisters Inside in Brisbane, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women heard evidence from Aboriginal women of the violence experienced in communities and behind prison bars.
Aboriginal women are the “fastest growing” prison population in Australia and it is well-known incarceration rates for Aboriginal women are linked to the double discrimination women face in the criminal justice system on the basis of both race and gender.
Aboriginal women also spoke of the suffering resulting from child protection practices leading to widespread removal of Aboriginal children, including newborns, from their mothers at rates exceeding those that occurred under the discriminatory era of The Stolen generations.
The removals have sparked a nationwide campaign called Family Matters that seeks to reduce the level of over-representation of Aboriginal children by increasing recognition and respect for Aboriginal human rights, such as self-determination, empowerment, Aboriginal healing processes and family-led decision-making.
In concluding her Australian tour, the Special Rapporteur commented that government strategies such as Closing the Gap are in fact not closing the gap on gender equality and violence against Aboriginal women.
Family and domestic violence support services:
The policy of removing Aboriginal children, she said, was perpetuating the cycle of violence against Aboriginal women and the Australian Government should develop a National Action Plan to specifically address it.
(This would be consistent with Article 22 and 23 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Imprisonment of Aboriginal women should only be a matter of last resort).
Contrary to human rights, the lives of Aboriginal women and girls nationwide are undermined on a daily widespread basis through entrenched practices of discrimination impeding the wellbeing of families, communities and cultures.
This year on IWD we call on all Australian women to stand in solidarity with us as we resist widespread human rights violations being witnessed.
Dr Hannah McGlade is a Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University. A member of the Noongar people of West Australia, she led the establishment of services in WA for Aboriginal women and children affected by family violence. In 2016 she was appointed the Senior Indigenous Fellow of the UN Office of the High Commission of Human Rights.
9 March 2017 | 1:49 am
NewsCO World & Australian News, Sport, MMA & More