The fight for justice for Aboriginal women

September 16, 2017

Indigenous feminist and trade unionist Celeste Liddle addressed the topic of “Women fight back against misogyny & rape culture” at the Radical Ideas conference hosted by Resistance: Socialist Youth Alliance in August.

The following text is based on an abridged version of her talk.


A lot of the work I have done in the past couple of years was off the back of the “Counting Dead Women” count, collated by Destroy the Joint and other similar efforts to keep track of women who have died as a result of family or domestic violence. On the basis of these, I started my own list counting the number of dead Aboriginal women and I ran that on my blog for the past two years.

When I started drawing out the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, I found they made up around 20% of recorded deaths. For a population that makes up about 3% of women in this country, this figure is bad enough as it is — we are talking about a rate that is six to seven times higher than our population.

But on top of that, in going through these lists, I was only able to identify certain victims as Aboriginal women on the basis of my own community knowledge. It wasn’t highlighted in the media or in police reports.

Generally there was some sort of report that a woman had died in an area highly populated by Aboriginal women, but there was no name, no follow-up report about the case, and usually no arrests were reported in the media.

So, I would find police or media reports from places where I know there is a large population of Aboriginal people and I would run it past community members to make sure I was correct on my hunch.

Trawling though the data for this year, the latest figure I have has the death toll sitting at 75 recorded deaths of women — about 1.7 women a week.

Breaking it down to see who is Indigenous, I think we are going to see much the same as previous years, because the rates of family and domestic violence for Aboriginal women are still about 38 times what they are for non-Indigenous women.

The rates of brain injury from family and domestic violence for Aboriginal women are about 70 times what they are for non-Indigenous women, while Aboriginal women are five times more likely to be victims of sexual violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

So I expect Aboriginal women will once again make up 20% of that list despite still being only 3% of the population.

Media reporting

It is also worth talking about some of the reporting surrounding dead Aboriginal women, some of which I found to be quite traumatising.

One of the reports that really stuck with me from last year was the death of Adeline Yvette Wilson-Rigney in South Australia.

Yvette was a young mother from a low socio-economic background. She was killed by her partner; there was a history of domestic violence.

But when the media reported the case, all they talked about was how Yvette had a drinking problem and a history of drug use, that her house was messy and that her kids lived in squalor.

They reported this as if squalor and drug abuse is what killed this woman rather than a man making a decision to kill her. The reports made it seem she was responsible for her own death.  

We have finally got the trial for the killers of Lynette Daley, another dead Aboriginal woman. It is actually a miracle that the trial is going ahead in the first place.

The media has been referring to her death as the result of a sex act or a threesome gone wrong, but how can someone obtain so many traumatic injuries to her body that she ends up dead through such an act.

Here again we are dealing with a mother of seven who had been drinking the day she was killed, so a lot of the reports said that she had been a neglectful mother who liked alcohol and was into kinky sex.

The men were initially arrested but then had their charges dropped. If it hadn’t been for the fight put up by Lynette Daley’s mother and her family, as well as some key Aboriginal women who lobbied the New South Wales Attorney-General to get the case reopened and have the men charged, they wouldn’t have been in court.

Another case that has stuck in my mind is that of Ms Dhu, who died in police custody. We all know that she was taken to that health campus three times and they just completely dismissed her, neglected her, saying she was making it all up.

We all know that the cops were really brutal with her, that they were saying all this horrible stuff to her. That footage has now come out, again after the family had to fight to get any hearing in the first place.

But one of the most under reported aspects of this case is that Ms Dhu was a domestic violence victim. The police had been called to her house in the first place due to a domestic disturbance.

She should have been receiving assistance to deal with a case of domestic violence but instead of assisting her, the police chose to run her name, found she had a few unpaid fines for traffic misdemeanours and then locked her up.

So the fight for any sort of justice for Aboriginal women, the fight for Aboriginal women to be taken seriously is a constant one, as is the fight for the media to take these issues seriously.

When you look at the case of Lynette Daley, it is impossible to miss the misogyny and rape culture surrounding the reporting of her death. The same is true for Yvette Rigney and the victim blaming around her case.

We see this happen to non-Indigenous women as well, but when it happens to Indigenous women we see how the media adds on other stereotypes they have about us, such as alcohol or drug abuse.

Aboriginal women’s activism

One of the ways they denigrate any activism Aboriginal people are engaged in is by saying that we come out on the streets to protest Don Dale Detention Centre but we don’t care about the victims of abuse and family violence within our own communities.

This is a line pushed in particular by conservative Aboriginal men. There’s a particularly nasty Indigenous man who has taken it upon himself to attack Aboriginal women engaged in activism. He has been attacking Aboriginal women who are not just key community activists, but who also work in domestic and family violence or who are survivors of domestic and family violence themselves.

He has been attacking movements like Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), where you have people who work in domestic and family violence, you have survivors, where most of the organisers are women who are trying to draw attention to broader community issues all the time.

Within our community, where women are doing all this hard work, we have to continuously convince Aboriginal men to recognise this fact.

Last year, WAR had to put out a statement pointing out that as an organisation, it was predominantly made up of women, that women had been at the forefront for a long time and noting the fact that people just assuming women were not the leaders of our social justice movement said an awful lot about the need to check one’s own misogyny.

A final point is that I think one of the biggest problems the left has is recognising rape and misogyny culture within its ranks. As progressives there seems to be this natural tendency to assume that they are across it and they don’t believe they are perpetrators of it.

Within the left, at times I’ve gotten into arguments with people accusing me of “splitting the movement” by talking about sexism (and racism). The idea that one woman can split an entire social justice movement is just incredible. The same thing happens within Indigenous dialogues when we are talking about issues affecting Aboriginal women.

If we don’t solve this then we are not going to get to any notion of liberation at all.

I think this is a challenge for the left and I think we need to get a little bit more proactive at looking at intersectionality as structural rather than individual, and start taking apart the various elements that keep down on the lowest rungs some of the people the left needs the most. 

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