Healing an Epidemic of Domestic Abuse: How Feminist Theory Can Help Recentre the Silenced Voices of Australian First Nations Women
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Domestic abuse is increasingly understood as a global human rights issue that has far-reaching impacts on victim-survivors, their children, their families, and their communities. It is embedded within and enabled by patriarchal culture, which demands legal and social responses that understand violence against women and girls as a systemic rather than an individual problem.
In the Australian context, Indigenous women are subject to domestic and family violence that is disproportionate in both scale and severity, with rates of hospitalisation 32 times higher than non-Indigenous women in Australia. The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has remarked expressly on the ‘disturbing pattern of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’, produced by ‘structurally and institutionally entrenched’ discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, and class.
This aggravated incidence of violence is in no way because domestic abuse is a problem deriving from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture: it is perpetrated by men of all cultural backgrounds and should compel attention from all parts of Australian society. Indeed, as one of the world’s longest surviving cultures, much First Nations customary law is explicitly protective of women’s rights. Rather, the reason that the victimisation of Indigenous women is particularly acute and complex is due to the intersecting axes of racialised and gender-based oppression which this group continues to face in contemporary Australia. This article offers a framework for understanding the crisis via the synthesis of three complementary branches of feminist jurisprudence—capabilities, relationality, and intersectionality—which together seek to capture the multidimensional disempowerment and silencing of Indigenous victim-survivors through an enriched capabilities analysis.
The Context of the Crisis: Indigeneity, Patriarchy and Intergenerational State Violence
The present crisis of domestic abuse amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is a direct product of ‘the disadvantage, dispossession and attempted destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures since colonisation’ and the consequent devaluing of First Nations women’s lives. The UN Special Rapporteur affirms that violence towards Indigenous communities globally is systemic and continues to be perpetrated with high levels of impunity. The epidemic of domestic abuse is therefore the fault of both deeply entrenched patriarchal social norms, as well as institutional structures which continue to fail Indigenous peoples in securing equality before the law and access to justice. Because of this ‘double bind’ of racialised and gendered oppression, General Recommendation 19 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) explicitly acknowledges that Indigenous women are at particular risk of gender-based violence and aggravated discrimination. As gender inequality is thus inseparable from ongoing colonial violence, Victoria’s Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service maintains the need for a genuinely intersectional framing of domestic abuse.
The types of violence to which First Nations women are exposed are typically cyclical and intergenerational, due to patterns of oppression and trauma that result from the continuing process of colonisation. These patterns are the result of State violence towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia, including dispossession from land, culture and lore; the consequent breakdown of traditional systems of kinship; and the forced removal and institutionalisation of children through the Stolen Generations until the 1970s. The ‘inherited grief’ that this occasions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is reinforced by economic exclusion and high levels of poverty, as well as racial prejudice. Importantly, the systemic destruction of sources of collective resilience for Indigenous peoples—including expressions of shared identity through language and cultural practices—has resulted in the loss of traditional role models, which have been replaced with colonial patriarchy. Given that ‘for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, culture is the foundation upon which everything else is built’, the devastating effects of these aspects of oppression cannot be overstated.
Due to these complex dynamics, First Nations women’s experiences of violence are distinctive and multilayered. Domestic abuse is liable to be ‘a familiar or expected experience’ for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, ‘both in their own lives and in those of many close female relatives.’ Yet, in common with non-Indigenous women, speaking about domestic abuse remains tainted with stigma: women often fear community exclusion and being blamed for family breakdown upon making a report of domestic abuse, and face an increased risk of serious physical violence in retaliation. In addition, women may risk homelessness if they are ostracised from their community as a result of disclosing abuse. If a victim-survivor is subsequently forced to leave her home, the risk of disconnection from community and from country is magnified, and this may also be a catalyst for the intervention of child protection services. Crisis services which fail to appreciate these intersecting pressures, and to embed culturally safe and trauma aware practice, thus risk irremediably alienating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women due to their multifaceted vulnerabilities.
How Can Feminist Approaches Help Amplify Indigenous Women’s Voices?
Although the issue of domestic and family violence amongst Indigenous Australians has been widely researched, I suggest that an enriched capabilities analysis can offer insights by recentring the victim-survivor’s experience at the very centre of law and policy considerations, rather than beginning with a strategic, top-down approach. By thus positioning personal, lived experience and the voices of First Nations women at the core of my model, I hope to attend carefully to the affective experience a woman endures as she navigates abuse, and the social services and justice systems which respond to and interact with coercive control and abuse. My compound feminist analytical framework therefore asks three core questions, designed to foreground women’s own narrated accounts of their experiences:
Capability Approach: How does domestic abuse affect a person’s capabilities?
Relationality: How do interactions with law and its actors exacerbate the harms of capability deprivation and pathological vulnerability that victim-survivors experience?
Intersectionality: How do systemic inequalities interact with capability deprivation and pathological vulnerability?
By capturing the victim-survivor as a complex individual susceptible to capability deprivation, before expanding outwards to their relational environment and social positionality, we can derive a rich understanding of the diversity of lived experiences of domestic abuse. Importantly, the divisions between the three layers of the enriched capabilities analysis are porous and nonlinear: pathological vulnerability and structural inequality pervade capabilities, just as capability deprivation and intersectional disadvantage inform one another. As such, the enriched capabilities model is dynamic and flexible: it can capture an individual at a particular point in time, using her own words to illuminate the forces that are compounding her oppression. While such forces do not operate on individual victim-survivors in a predictable or consistent way, taken together they are able to generate a portrait of underlying patterns and cross-cutting themes grounded in Indigenous women’s accounts. Identifying these commonalities amongst the experiences of First Nations women can also help to contextualise other individuals’ narratives. In this way, the communal and the personal continually permeate each other in seeking to generate an authentic, victim-centred picture of domestic abuse within a specific community.
In applying the enriched capabilities analysis to Indigenous Australian women’s experiences of domestic abuse, we must first understand that systemic state violence has ‘had tragic impacts on every Aboriginal [and Torres Strait Islander] person’. Intense and cyclical patterns of violence against First Nations women have the potential to devastate their capabilities, undermining their right to pursue the kind of life they choose. Domestic abuse is only one of these forms of violence, but because of the way it manifests—seeking to control all aspects of a woman’s behaviour and decisions—it is one of the most dangerous, long-term capability deprivations a person may experience. Not only targeting bodily health, security from assault, control over one’s environment, and the ability to live a life of normal length, coercive control also strikes at a person’s emotional attachments, their thoughts and imagination, and their ability to reflect on and plan their own life. Indeed, victim-survivors consistently emphasise that the most difficult aspects of abuse are not physical but emotional and psychological. Because of these multifaceted axes of control and oppression, domestic abuse operates as a holistic capability deprivation, lethally undermining human dignity and sense of self. In the context of First Nations women, aggravated by the ‘ongoing and cumulative effects of colonisation … [and] the erosion of cultural and spiritual identity’, capability deprivations also interact intersectionally with concrete structural inequalities including access to healthcare, homelessness and systemic racism. Each of these factors independently puts severe pressure on a person’s capabilities and their opportunities to make meaningful choices about their life, even outside of the context of domestic abuse.
Assessing the holistic capability deprivation to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victim-survivors are subjected—at the juncture of racialised and gendered violence—enables a deeper appreciation of the intersecting pressures which reinforce First Nations women’s disempowerment through domestic abuse. An enriched capabilities analysis is able to affirm and validate women’s accounts of their lived experience which emphasise that the process of separating from an abuser, recovering from trauma, and rebuilding one’s life is messy and nonlinear. Alongside capabilities, relationality and intersectionality help us recognise how the cumulative effects of systemic racism, fractured community networks, and the inherited trauma of colonisation map intricately onto women’s experiences as abuse survivors. These forces also interact with economic precarity and housing insecurity, particularly in rural and remote First Nations communities, to produce an acute capability deprivation that prevents many women from being able to exert control over their own life choices. As such, alongside access to tangible forms of practical support—including housing, healthcare and education—genuinely transformative generational change demands close attention to enriching the capability-supporting networks of community healing for Indigenous women, guided by the advocacy and knowledges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves. As the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) First Nations Women’s Safety Outcomes Report attests:
When First Nations women are invested in, and their lives, roles and knowledges are recognised and reflected in surrounding systems, children thrive, economies grow, communities are cohesive, and harms and violence are minimised.
The broader lessons offered by this case study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victim-survivors are relevant beyond just the Australian context or for Indigenous peoples elsewhere. As an enriched capabilities framework demonstrates, it is through centring an individual’s own lived experience, capabilities, and relationships—alongside those of the community in which they are embedded—that meaningful change can happen. Nowhere is this more important than in the case of domestic abuse, which constitutes a targeted, comprehensive assault on a person’s human rights, dignity and self-perception. By foregrounding the contributions of these complementary strands of feminist jurisprudence, a richer and more powerful portrait of abuse, trauma and healing is able to emerge.