Facing an ugly problem

Wednesday, July 31, 1991

By Adrienne Barrett

Violence is Ugly. That's the slogan of the Victorian government campaign against domestic violence. Its aims include greater police power in domestic violence situations, streamlining police procedures for initiating intervention orders and increasing services available to women, and introducing services for men such as anger management courses.

Another campaign against domestic violence has been conducted recently, organised by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Childcare (SNAICC). This is aimed at Aboriginal and Islander communities. It tries to promote awareness of the issues and emphasises the need for the whole community's involvement in the search for solutions. The campaign has produced a handbook and posters carrying the themes: Domestic Violence — Not Our Way, Sexual Abuse — Not Our Way.

Why two campaigns? Through Black Eyes, the book produced for the campaign by SNAICC, clearly shows why in its history of Aboriginal and Islander communities before and after the invasion in 1788. The reasons are reinforced by the shocking statistics of family violence within the communities, by the personal accounts of women's and children's experiences and by the statistics on black deaths in custody.

Police involvement in domestic violence generally is fraught with problems. Evidence from the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody stated that between January 1980 and June 1988, 99 men and nine women died in police, prison or other custody. In that context, police intervention and legal action against domestic violence is a last resort for Aboriginal and Islander women.

Maryanne Sam, a Torres Strait Islander and the project officer for SNAICC, says, "It's highly unlikely that an Aboriginal woman will take out an intervention order".

Through Black Eyes reports that in one Aboriginal women's refuge in NSW, only two women have taken court action against their spouses in 10 years. The book also cites incidents of Aboriginal women reporting rape or violence to the police and then being raped or beaten by police.

Police called to the scene of domestic violence have been described by both black and white women as uncaring and unsympathetic. The situation between the police and the families involved can worsen when women decide not to press charges. At the same time, in one Aboriginal community in Queensland, more women have died as a result of violent assault than in all the black deaths in custody in that state.

As the book clearly states, Aboriginal and Islander women do not want their men to go to jail. But they do want the violence to stop.

The need for men's resources and support services has been raised in both campaigns. Joint activity might be constructive in those areas.

However, the issues raised by men's roles in domestic violence are different in black and white communities. White feminists have fought, and still are working, for legal and economic reforms that would facilitate women's legal action against men in sexual assault and domestic violence incidents, and that would give women more economic and social freedom to leave a violent situation.

For Aboriginal women, the issue of men's role is one of survival of the communities. Legal action against their men raises the spectre of increased poverty, more unemployment, the destruction of families or the community, or another death in custody. Through Black Eyes is addressed to men, as well as women and children, in a way which says that this is a community problem and that you, as part of the community, are part of this campaign.

Through Black Eyes places black domestic violence firmly in the context of the Aboriginal communities' experience of living in white society — a vicious circle of unemployment, poverty and discrimination. This book acknowledges the presence of a huge problem and claims the right of Aboriginal and Islander communities to search for the solution.

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