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From The Australian, March 6 2007


IN 2005 I spent several days in the Alice Springs hospital after falling ill while attending a friend’s wedding. I shared a ward with a middle-aged Aboriginal man who was quite proud that he had raped a 13-year-old girl. As he said, “She wouldn’t say yes, so I f—ed her hard.”  Culture of Denial 

It did not surprise me. A few years before, I was in Alice Springs talking to two Aboriginal men in their early 70s. They were preparing to go into town to buy plastic toy dinosaurs. This was to pay a 12-year-old girl for having sex with both of them at the same time.

What amazed me was their lack of shame or even simple embarrassment. What disturbed me even more was that the most common sight in the hospital was Aboriginal women and girls with severe injuries suffered during domestic violence. Some of their faces looked as though an incompetent butcher had conducted plastic surgery with a hammer and saw. The fear in their eyes reminded me of dogs whipped into cringing submission. The confronting evidence of what men had done to the women was almost unbearable.

About 20 years ago an Aboriginal woman told me she had been raped at the age of seven by her uncle and grandfather on a town rubbish tip. As I was to discover as my circle of Aboriginal friends and acquaintances grew, sexual abuse was not uncommon — and in some communities it was rife — from the 1960s onwards.

Another friend told me that at the age of 10 he had been thrown into a wardrobe where his uncle masturbated him and then forced him to perform oral sex. Several other “uncles” also abused him through the years. I heard of many more such incidents and not one of these men ever had to go to court for their actions.

After I had recovered from my stay in Alice Springs hospital I was alarmed to read of a middle-aged Aboriginal man who anally raped a 14-year-old girl whom, he said, had been promised to him. Northern Territory Chief Justice Brian Martin sentenced him to detention for the duration of the court session.

It seemed to me that Aboriginal men were using the defence of cultural traditions to get away with rape and murder. But it’s not only that. The statistics on Aboriginal domestic violence and sexual abuse are so much worse than in the general population, as has been highlighted in the 40 reports produced on the issue since 1999. All the statistics and case studies I refer to in this piece are sourced from federal and state government reports, court proceedings, newspaper articles and books, and are expanded on in my new book, Bad Dreaming (Pluto Press), which also contains an extensive bibliography.

The Alice Springs hospital provides a clear example: about 800 Aboriginal women were treated for domestic assault last year, up from 351 in 1999. The rate of domestic assault in indigenous communities is eight to 10 times that of non-indigenous communities and the sexual abuse of girls is so widespread that one-third of 13-year-old girls in the NT are infected with chlamydia and gonorrhoea. In fact, the situation has become a calamity.

But even more disturbing is that while some Aborigines are being recognised as wonderful painters, photographers, actors, filmmakers, footballers and dancers, indigenous communities are breaking down under the strain of male violence and sexual brutality. As Aboriginal elder Mick Dodson has said: “This is not just our problem; this is everyone’s problem.”

After the arrival of the First Fleet explorers and settlers wrote about the violence they saw Aboriginal men inflict on women. They also observed how the men kidnapped women from other tribes, raped them and forced them to become their wives.

By the end of the 19th century, the new discipline of anthropology began to study Aboriginal culture and society in detail, and with much sympathy and respect. It is in these studies that we gain a clearer picture of the relationship between Aboriginal men and women.

Betrothal was universal across the continent, with some marriages arranged before a child was born. A feature of Aboriginal life was that of the considerably older man, a middle-aged elder, marrying a girl barely into her teens. Polygamy was also practised.

A.W. Howitt, who wrote the influential The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (1904), summarised what he had learned about the marital situation in traditional society as “a man had power of life and death over his wife”.

Despite local variations, there is a consistent pattern of traditional Aboriginal men’s treatment of women that could be exceedingly harsh and sexually aggressive (gang rape, for instance). Given its pervasive nature across Australia, we can say that it was ancient and long-lasting.

Anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry, author of the seminal Aboriginal Women Sacred and Profane (1939), sums up Aboriginal men’s attitude to women: “(The men) generally attribute a series of undesirable qualities to women. They are held to be faithless, untrustworthy, sexually insatiable, and talk too much.”

One of the most depressing exercises in Australian history is to map the march of white settlement. Invariably, the arrival of white men meant the quick destruction or near dissolution of Aboriginal groups as a result of disease (including venereal disease as a result of rape), violence and dispossession. Later came the deliberate removal of mixed-blood children from their families, and state and federal governments’ benign neglect or callous indifference towards Aborigines. Missionaries undermined traditional culture but there were some customs indigenous women were pleased to see fade away. One has only to read Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem The Child Wife (“They gave me to an old man,/Joyless and old,/Life’s smile of promise./So soon to frown”) to understand why.

If cases of Aboriginal men murdering their women were reported in newspapers, it was merely to confirm that Aboriginal ways were primitive and their actions and behaviour were very different from white societal norms.

For example, in the mid-1960s, an Aboriginal man killed his wife in central Australia. A Department of Aboriginal Affairs welfare officer, explained to the judge that it was customary for the men to punish their wives or partners with “considerable beatings”. After listening to this explanation, the judge sentenced the man to a year in jail, justifying the short jail term as making “allowance for racial customs”. This episode is related in Joan Kimm’s 2004 book A Fatal Conjunction (Federation Press).

Customary law or traditional law began to be used as a common defence. In 1980, justice John Gallop in the Northern Territory Supreme Court accepted the argument from evidence given for an accused man “that rape is not considered as seriously in Aboriginal communities as it is in the white communities … and indeed the chastity of women is not as importantly regarded as in white communities. Apparently the violation of an Aboriginal woman’s integrity is not nearly as significant as it is in the white community.”

Occasional reports in the ’80s began to detail some alarming trends. For instance, in Western Australia, sexual assault by Aboriginal men increased tenfold between 1961 and 1981. Audrey Bolger, in her 1990 book, Aboriginal Women and Violence, writes that if all reported and unreported assaults are taken into account, about one-third of the female population in the NT is assaulted every year. Bolger further points out that the number of murdered Aboriginal women exceeds the number of indigenous men who have died in custody.

It is not necessary to exaggerate the dystopian quality of some Aboriginal communities. The poverty and squalor can be overwhelming. Alcohol, kava, marijuana (according to the police, almost every house on Groote Eylandt has a bong) are pervasive drugs that, with petrol-sniffing, render some indigenous communities totally dysfunctional. Viewing pornography is commonplace and children are constantly exposed to it. Nepotism means regular financial corruption and the misuse of public funds. “Big men” control their communities by thuggery.

The poor health of Aborigines results in a life expectancy 20 years shorter than that of non-indigenous Australians. As regards education, the 1999 NT government report Learning Lessons pointed out that indigenous students in the territory were less literate and numerate than their parents or grandparents.

Violence is so much a part of Aboriginal life that a town such as Alice Springs has a murder rate 10 times the national average. An Aborigine is seven times as likely to be murdered and about 10 times as likely to be jailed. These conditions spawn a hideous environment where women are subjected to brutal sexual indignities, physical wounds and murder and where child sexual assault is endemic. Indigenous theatre director Wesley Enoch recently summed up the situation: “I don’t know any Aboriginal who hasn’t had to deal with physical and-or sexual abuse.”

Since the release of the report by the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Taskforce on Violence in 1999 there have been about 40 official inquiries into domestic violence and sexual abuse in indigenous communities. The Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce’s Breaking the Silence report, released last year, found that the sexual assault of indigenous children in NSW was so widespread that not a single family in the 29 rural and urban communities surveyed was unaffected by it.

Such reports contain many graphic examples of the appalling violence meted out to women. Let’s take some at random.

Last year Alice Springs crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers reported a case in central Australia in which the wife of an elder was repeatedly bashed and stabbed through the years. Eventually her husband beat her to death, tied up her corpse and left it on an ant’s nest for a week.

Two years ago, at Araru outstation on the Coburg Peninsula, Trenton Cunningham beat his wife, Jodie Palipuaminni, to death after she failed to bring him a cup of water while he was burying his dog. On the night before she died, people heard her screaming. Rather than help her, relatives told Palipuaminni and her husband to shut up. She was later heard crying out, “Please stop.”

At the time of the attack Cunningham, 27, was on parole for assaulting his wife with a steel bar and pouring boiling water over her, resulting in skin grafts to 20 per cent of her body. Palipuaminni had been promised to Cunningham soon after being born and they had four children.

These men assault their women for sometimes the most minor reasons. Sometimes the reasons are almost unbelievable. In her 2005 book Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land (Allen & Unwin), Mary Ellen Jordon relates that in Maningrida, a community in the far north, it was common for men to bash their wives when the women returned from a trip just in case they had done anything wrong while they were away.

Nurses and doctors in the outback see countless examples of domestic abuse. Kate Napthall once worked at the small Tennant Creek hospital. She remembers one Friday night working in the emergency department from 5pm until 8am and seeing 28 cases of domestic assault and, as she remarked, these were the ones who had sought help.

“The case I recall with the greatest sadness,” she told a newspaper interviewer last year, “is that of a young woman, probably 28, who had a saucepan of boiling water poured over her face, scalding her eyes beyond recognition. When I looked in her files, she had between 40 and 50 similar presentations of assault against her by her husband.”

It’s also worth remembering that many of these violent acts occur in public but no one steps in to help the woman, not even relatives. As one woman related to the 1999 taskforce: “I’ve seen women on the ground being kicked in the belly and in the head and no one went to help her. You just didn’t do that. You could watch, but weren’t allowed to butt into people’s fights.”

The number of assaults on women is rising dramatically but the brutality of the attacks is escalating, too, with spears, rocks, knives, bottles and bricks being used.

The 2002 Gordon report into child abuse and family violence in Aboriginal communities in Western Australia makes it quite clear that rape has become more common, especially gang rape.

The violence associated with these rapes is increasingly ferocious and sometimes beggars belief. Victims are viciously gang-banged, during which they are smashed with iron bars, rocks, pieces of concrete or lumps of wood that cause extensive physical injuries and permanent facial deformities.

A particularly nasty strain of this violence that is showing an alarming increase is the number of women being set on fire. Russell Skelton wrote in The Age last year about the case of a young man who doused petrol on his 18-year-old girlfriend’s stomach and genitals and set her clothes on fire when she refused to have sex.

It has been the recent publicising of child abuse in Aboriginal communities that has shocked the non-indigenous community most. I don’t want to dwell on the details of such abuse but I will note a few cases that are indicative of what is happening to Aboriginal girls.

A seven-month-old baby was taken out of her home and raped. She needed surgery under general anaesthetic. A six-year-old girl was playing in a waterhole when an 18-year-old petrol sniffer grabbed her, pulled her under and simultaneously anally raped and drowned her. A 10-year-old girl was tied to a tree for several weeks and raped repeatedly. Then there was the case of a three-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by three men. If that wasn’t enough, 10 days later another man raped her twice, once using a mangrove stick.

The Breaking the Silence report notes that the sexual abuse of children is at least four times more likely in Aboriginal communities and that the reported levels of abuse “grossly under-represent the reality”.

If the sexual abuse were not enough, many of these girls are infected with sexually transmitted diseases by the perpetrators. In WA, the rate of gonorrhoea for Aboriginal children aged 10 to 14 is an astonishing 186 times the non-Aboriginal rate. In late 2005, four underage girls in the NT, the youngest being just seven, were found to have serious sexually transmitted infections that included chlamydia and resilient strains of gonorrhoea and syphilis.

Indigenous homosexuality has always been an uncomfortable topic to discuss, for Aborigines and their supporters. The reasons are complex but we know that it was practised traditionally, both as a sexual release for teenage boys and young men who couldn’t find female sexual partners, and in initiation ceremonies.

Because of the secrecy around the subject the abuse of boys has been overlooked; but there is no doubt that some men are raping boys under the guise of the act being part of Aboriginal culture. Researcher Gary Lee says that boys as young as eight are being used for sex. “It seems to have almost a cultural sanction,” he says, adding that everyone in the community knows it is happening but that there is “a real reluctance to talk about it”. He believes the main perpetrators are elders or older relatives.

The situation is so bad in the Tanami Desert that mothers have banned their sons from going into the bush for initiation camps.

We also know that Aboriginal boys are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the rate for the rest of Australia. In a 2006 survey of indigenous men in Queensland and the NT, 10per cent of participants had been raped before reaching the age of 16.

It is a mistake to think that this only happens in remote or rural areas. About 70 per cent of the indigenous population lives in urban areas. The Sydney Aboriginal communities at La Perouse, Woolloomooloo, Mount Druitt, Blacktown and Redfern have high rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse, too, as the Breaking the Silence report points out.

A few years ago, at La Perouse, Lani Brennan fled from her partner after he tried at least four times in their three-year relationship to kill her. She left him after one incident when he bashed her with a baseball bat and golf club, raped her, then tried to hang her. She said the La Perouse community knew what was happening but did nothing to stop it.

“It’s not just happening in some Aboriginal community in Western Australia or the Northern Territory; it happens in Sydney,” she said after her husband’s trial. “A lot of Aboriginal people are ‘Hear no evil, see no evil’. There’s a lot of alcohol, a lot of sexual assaults and a lot of really terrible violence. It’s a normal thing in an Aboriginal community.”

This abuse of children is disturbing, but so is the constant threat of its occurrence. It must create a state of permanent tension and fear that permeates the childhood years of many young Aborigines. One of the contributing factors to the high suicide rate among indigenous children is sexual molestation.

Henry Councillor, chairman of the National Community Controlled Health Organisation, has said: “One of the experiences we are finding is that a lot of youth suicide under the age of 18 is a result of child sexual abuse.”

Perhaps the worst outcome is that the abused child ends up becoming an adult abuser, making the terrible cycle a permanent feature of indigenous life in Australia.

Traditional Aboriginal society expressed anger through aggression, but the violence and sexual behaviour was tightly structured through ritual, ceremony and proscribed procedures. But with the influence of alcohol and acculturation, some of these customs have become a pathological distortion of those that were the basis of traditional life.

Even so, some Aboriginal men use the notion of custom and tradition to get their own way. Journalist Paul Toohey has written of how indigenous men in the NT fallaciously claimed that tribal law justified their raping of Aboriginal girls and women. The truth is that most, if not all, of these rapes occur because of lust and alcohol, not because the girls and women have committed a traditional offence.

Even when Aboriginal men go to court, many receive lenient sentences when using the defence of intoxication combined with customary law. Cunningham was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, yet no alcohol was involved in the crime and he was breaching the conditions for his parole at the time.

There is no doubt that some judges still consider that Aboriginal men’s treatment of their women should be viewed differently from how the rest of society treat women. The defence does work. Last year NT Chief Justice Martin conceded he was wrong to sentence the elder to a month’s jail for having anal sex with a 14-year-old promised to him as a wife. He admitted he had placed too much emphasis on the elder’s belief that under tribal law he had the right to teach the girl to obey him.

There are other problems with this defence. The most important one is that it is always the man’s view of customary law that prevails in court. Women remain victims of men’s versions of indigenous customs and culture.

Women have not only been at the mercy of men’s violence but also captives to the idea that they do not represent Aboriginal culture; that only men do. Is it any wonder that indigenous women despair of their own Aboriginal legal services, which still continue to push the defence of customary law?

In May last year, Marcia Langton, an indigenous professor at the University of Melbourne, spoke for many women when she asked: “Are the Aboriginal legal services which supposedly work for us ever going to stop arguing that rape is traditional law?”

It’s not only in law courts where indigenous men take precedence over their victims but in their communities, where many elders wield authority through physical intimidation and bullying and by using bureaucratic powers given to them by state and federal governments.

The Gordon report concluded that “Some elder groups or councils are part of the reason why indigenous communities are having little success in creating less violent, more positive communities with male elders hindering prevention initiatives because of their own involvement in violence.”

A prime example is Robert Bropho, an influential elder who had for years effectively banned child welfare workers and the local Aboriginal medical service from the Swan Valley Nyoongar camp. His indifference to the plight of abused girls was disgusting. He was eventually jailed for sexual matters involving a girl under 13.

These men not only intimidate their own people but the white health workers, bureaucrats and others who work in these communities. Lara Wieland, a former flying doctor who spent three years in far north Queensland, said last year that public servants who reported abuse were themselves verbally abused and threatened by men in positions of power.

“Some of these men were considered by many in the community to be perpetrators of child abuse themselves. Yet time and time again we saw them wield the power and control in the communities and saw government departments and officials cower in fear, turning a blind eye rather than (be) accused of being a racist by these men, which was their common ploy.”

Another way these violent men maintain control is through the use of the permit system that allows some indigenous communities to refuse entry to visitors. Men use the permit system to continue their abuse undetected and unreported by the wider community. The Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell has commented that “there is a striking correlation between the levels of violence in a community and the tightness of its closure”.

In any community it takes much courage to report domestic violence and sexual abuse, but in Aboriginal communities women and children face other enormous obstacles.

Retribution by relatives of the accused is common. One woman told the 1999 taskforce: “Extended family came around and got into me. They went for me at the court after he was found guilty of attempted murder on me.”‘

Sometimes the whole community will protect a vicious abuser. In November last year, NSW District Court judge Michael Finnane, in sentencing Aboriginal rapist Phillip Boney to 23 years’ jail, criticised the Moree Aboriginal community who refused to help police find the rapist after his first attacks on a woman.

By protecting him, the community allowed Boney to rape her again. Within the space of one month, he kidnapped the woman on three occasions, assaulted her and raped her five times.

As Finnane remarked in his judgment, “Aboriginality does not provide any justification for his obsessive and cruel behaviour.”

But as far as many Aboriginal men are concerned, it does. Kinship ties are strong. Men will not condemn perpetrators whom they are related to by kin, and because these communities often see violence and sexual assault as a normal way of life, the dire situation is frequently hidden to protect family members and the perpetrators.

The most important commodity in any society is its children. After all, they are the future. The problem with this is that, despite the high numbers of Aboriginal children being removed from their communities and families (in 1990, indigenous mental health specialist Ernest Hunter reported that heavy drinking had been so destructive of family life that there were fewer Aboriginal children in Western Australia being reared by their biological parents than in the days of forced assimilation), many other at-risk children are not being removed.

The reason, as Sue Gordon, National Indigenous Council chairwoman, has remarked, is that “government agencies across the states and territories charged with the statutory responsibility for children’s issues have, I believe, taken the softly-softly approach to child abuse, (whether it be) emotional, physical neglect or sexual, because they have been frightened of creating another stolen generation.”

The most pressing need is that these children be rescued. Education has to be a priority. This may mean children are sent away from their communities to separate them from the corrupting influence of grog and the welfare mentality. Some communities, like those on Cape York, aware they need a new generation of leaders capable of dealing with the outside world, are sending their boys to Sydney boarding schools.

Indigenous communities have to recognise that it is impossible to hide from a globalised world behind an ossified sense of tradition. They have to realise they are part of Australian society as a whole and they have to face up to the high rate of social crisis among them. Indigenous communities cannot argue that they are not part of Western culture when they are eager devourers of it, consuming drugs, television, pornography, alcohol, junk food, cars and rap music.

Last year Rosalie Kunoth Monks, who chairs the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Education, said Aboriginal people were on a path of cultural suicide and needed to accept some blame for the choices they had made. She added that land and culture were no longer sufficient to sustain identity and that people must accept change. “To be part of the economy and a contributing member of society we have to take that journey,” she said. “It is my belief that the confusion will only be resolved through a new sense of identity and that comes through when you connect with other people, look at future pathways and not be so internalised.”

Yes, there are considerable health issues; yes, there are too few police in remote communities; yes, there is a shortage of women’s shelters; yes, one of the main problems is alcohol, yet it has been successfully banned in some communities. But one of the most insidious and intractable problems is welfare. Most of these communities have no employment and people exist on welfare their whole lives. As a result, a large number of men have nothing to do.

To put it quite simply, an idle man is a dangerous man.

It is curious that while researching Bad Dreaming there were many solutions put forward to combat these issues, yet men were rarely mentioned. But they are the problem and the solution. The men not only have to realise their behaviour is undermining Aboriginal culture but also that they are creating a generation of boys without good role models.

There is another aspect to all of this: Aboriginal society is oriented towards a sense of collective obligation rather than individual responsibility, but men may have to confront the perpetrators of violence, even though many of them may be elders and relatives. This may be the hardest task of all.

Furthermore, men need to accept that certain aspects of their traditional culture, and customs such as promised marriages, polygamy, violence towards women and male aggression, are best forgotten.

Above all, there should be one law for all and a recognition that human rights come before cultural rights. If the men refuse to do anything, they will be responsible for the slow death of aspects of their culture and their communities will continue to be on a nightmarish treadmill to cultural oblivion.