Originally published in the Koori Mail, April 20 2016
It is one of those comments that can strangle a person – the incredulous ‘Why didn’t she leave?’
It is used to bring the blame back onto the victim; to downgrade the seriousness of her experience.
It’s a question that is not always easy to answer. And when we talk about Aboriginal women, it becomes even more complicated.
Despite family violence finally dominating the national conversation, reaching such a pitch that it prompted a royal commission in Victoria and a half-a-billion dollar investment from the state government, the unique situation faced by Aboriginal women is largely sidelined. Within our communities, it can still be treated as a taboo subject. This is supported by the statistics.
Aboriginal women are less likely to report family violence to police, despite being 45 times more likely to experience it than non-Aboriginal women. According to the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria, there is evidence suggesting a staggering 90 percent goes unreported.
It’s particularly concerning because this under-reportage remains a concern even as reported rates rise exponentially. The service says that in Victoria, there has been a 360 percent increase in family violence incidents reported alone within a four-five year period.
At the national level, it could likely be worse.
So how do we break through this chronic level of under-reporting? How do we deal with taboos?
The reasons are as complex as the forces that have driven up the rates, according to the Indigenous Law Centre Acting Director Kyllie Cripps. Aboriginal women are forced to weigh up the consequences of reporting.
“I think in terms of the underreporting… women aren’t naive,” Dr Cripps told the Koori Mail. “They appreciate that if I’m going to report, it’s going to have a whole range of consequences.
“And it’s about navigating those consequences. It’s thinking about right, if I report to the police, what consequences is that going to have for me? What consequences is it going to have on my partner? What consequences is it going to have for both our families and our children?
And what is it all going to mean ultimately in terms of getting the violence to stop? When you are thinking about the realities of what we see on the news and media about deaths in custody, and when we see that the witnessing of family violence by children is seen as abuse and child protection will remove children on that basis… women are incredibly reluctant to report in those circumstances.
“To even go to a shelter these days, women also think about – well I’ve got a 12-year- old son – where will he go?
“They’re navigating all of these situations. Their navigating the risk involved in reporting. It’s a difficult place for them to be.”
And then Dr Cripps says there is also a fear of community reception.
“There are a number of case study examples, in the context of someone reporting and reporting sexual assault for example, and that’s probably the most underreported, and the offender’s family, the lateral violence that victim will cop from potentially the offender’s family or more broadly the community in general in terms of what services or surveillance will come into play after that report.. and that’s a very difficult place to be.”
Once a report goes to the authorities, it is taken out of control of the victim… a fact that is often not realised by community members.
“The reality is that … once you report something that has happened to you to the police, you become a witness in the case of the state against the offender.. it’s completely taken out of your hands.
“… You ultimately don’t have a choice in whether that case proceeds or not. That’s entirely up to the legal system. In terms of the lateral violence and the pressure that occurs in our community to get those charges dropped, is incredibly misguided.”
In her research, Dr Cripps outlines a process of victimisation. A victim or survivor will most likely first tell a family or a friend, who will then report to a health professional and then up the chain to police.
So often, it is family or friend who has influence on whether the matter goes further.
“Depending on the reception from that person, it will depend on whether it progresses. Typically I think the first point of call will be the elders or aunties, our mums, will be saying let’s get your injuries attended to…”
In some states, there are mechanisms in place that support family violence victims to speak about their abuse, if they can’t find a person in their inner circle who can help them.
“But I think the resources we have in our community. .. all of us live in communities where we know there is a trusted Elder or Aunty… and we have to acknowledge what they do in those circumstances. And they don’t necessarily get the acknowledgement that they deserve.”
Unfortunately, the supporters can also become victims of that same ‘lateral violence’, Dr Cripps says, which stresses the importance of how we foster a “supportive environment, rather than a judgmental one”.
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Jackie Huggins says that although rates are escalating across the country, the voices of Aboriginal women are now more likely to be heard, compared to decades ago when Aboriginal women were largely ignored.
She says that there are many programmes in communities, which cost very little to run, but are important in eradicating violence. She says that although there is generational traumatic stress… “I think at any level, you can break that cycle”.
Ms Huggins says that the attention paid to Family Violence, like in the recent Royal Commission down in Victoria, could embolden Aboriginal women at a grassroots level.
“I will hope women will come out a lot more… if they are feeling safe to expose family violence within their own families and within their own communities, that’s a really good thing. The more spotlight on it the better.”
And Dr Cripps says we all have a responsibility to ensure we provide safe responses if a close family or friend wants to confide about their abuse.
“The big issue is if the person you choose to share your story with for the first time, if their response is negative, then your reporting will go no further. Because the trust that you invested in them to hear your story and to help you understand and to help you create a safety in your life, if they don’t provide that, if they turn to you and say ‘you weren’t raped, when he slapped you one you must have deserved it. If that’s the response you’ve completely closed down the victim… you’ve blown their trust. So it’s about how you create people’s awareness and response – it might be ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you. What can I do?
If the response is a supportive one, then you are in a better position.”