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Women and Leadership in Aboriginal communities

There are many examples of Aboriginal women exercising strong leadership in spite of the NT intervention.  The Kapululangu Aboriginal Women’s Association established the Balgo Women’s Law Camp following concerns about the Northern Territory and Western Australian Special Police Taskforce on Child Sexual Abuse. According to Kapululangu, the Task Force had “failed to inform and consult with the community Elders before visiting the community, and had not involved the Elders and parents in their questioning of young women and men…They complained that, although a few residents were involved in these meetings, the majority of the community had no idea that these meetings were happening until they were over.” These concerns, coupled with incidences on family violence and worries over the disconnection of the younger generations with their cultural heritage, led the Kapululangu Aboriginal Women’s Association to develop the Camp. The Kapululangu wanted to “deliver a strong message to the governments that the Kapululangu women were capable of making an important contribution to their community’s well-being.” Or as one of the Elders, Margaret Anjule Napurrula puts it: “we have to show government we have strong Law here. They can’t rubbish it. We have got strong Law ourselves.” The key objectives of the camp were to demonstrate the powerful contribution Women’s Law can make in addressing abuse and violence problems in communities; to identify other strategies for addressing concerns within communities such as child sexual abuse and family violence, and to urge the Government and other bodies to fund the Kapululangu project which is currently the only women’s organisation representing Balgo.

The Camp was funded by Kapululangu, Balgo’s Palyalatju Maparnpa Health Committee, and the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre in Fitzroy Crossing. Kapululangu Aboriginal Women’s Association is currently unfunded and last received substantial governmental funding in 2001. The lack of supporting infrastructure, notably a Safe House also poses challenges to the women of the Kapululangu Aboriginal Women’s Association and the women of Balgo more broadly.

Similarly, in the remote community Yuendumu, a local Aboriginal woman undertook training and actively sought government funding to become the area’s only dedicated domestic violence worker. When she went on maternity leave, the government agency responsible for the service failed to provide accommodation for a replacement worker, who promptly (and unsurprisingly) left the community. Since then, Yuendumu has been without any domestic violence worker, despite the fact that under the intervention, a business manager has been imposed on this prescribed area.

Thus, not only has the NT Intervention ignored the culturally appropriate and successful grassroots campaigns and responses to violence against women, it has actively destroyed them. In the course of the Intervention, successful programs like night patrol and women’s safe houses, women’s business centres and dry out houses have been removed from some communities and town camps, and promises of the construction of more housing and programs have not been fulfilled.

Interestingly, in this climate of underfunding and undermining of Aboriginal initiatives, the mainstream media and government bodies portray certain individuals as “Aboriginal leaders”, perhaps for political expediency. For example, former ALP president Warren Mundine made a statement on ABC radio on 15 August, 2008: “”I’ve not heard one woman complain about the intervention on the ground because they find themselves safe”. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has recently been referring to Mr Mundine, along with a small select group of men as “the indigenous leadership of Australia”.

In response to this statement, some Aboriginal women from communities affected by the NT intervention have released a media statement, arguing that Mundine “is no leader of ours and has no right to speak on our behalf. Leadership means consultation with communities you represent. It means taking direction from your elders and working with all affected people to determine a way forward.”

Today, the Federal Government handed down its review of the NT intervention. Although the review reflects criticism of specific aspects of legislation, it fails to state clearly and critically that the intervention itself is flawed because it imposes values like economic viability on Aboriginal peoples and undermines their autonomy and self-determination. This huge threat to Aboriginal leadership must be addressed to ensure that Aboriginal Australians are fairly represented by leaders from their own communities. Ideally, this would include restoring the racial discrimination act, fully funding infrastructure in Aboriginal communities, and facilitating autonomy through national and local levels of democratic representation.

Women and Leadership in Remote Aboriginal Communities was written by Ms Bridget Honan (NSW) in October 2008 as part of her AFMW Leadership Scholarship.

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