If violence against women is a national priority, and Aboriginal women are disproportionately affected, then the experiences of Aboriginal women need to be valued, made visible and reported on appropriately.
According to the Council of Australian Governments, gendered family violence is one of:
… the most pervasive forms of violence experienced by women in Australia.
But if you are a Torres Strait Islander or Aboriginal woman, you are 35 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to experience family violence.
These statistics vary depending on where you live and your access to resources including support. But one thing is for sure: Aboriginal women in Australia experience family violence at a disproportionate level.
Absent in the media
The media is “a powerful setting for, and influencer of, social change”, especially in the area of primary prevention of family violence. The media play an important role in how it is understood, interpreted and responded to.
Whether violence is state-sanctioned or perpetrated by an intimate partner (or in the case of in the case of Ms Dhu, who experienced both), until very recently Aboriginal women’s experiences have remained almost absent in mainstream media coverage.
Earlier this year, professor Marcia Langton highlighted this absence when she said:
Aboriginal women have died from assaults and criminal misconduct, and they have passed without any public attention or anything like justice.
Since 2015, blogger Celeste Liddle has also been keeping count of the number of Aboriginal women who have been murdered, in an attempt to offset the lack of public attention these deaths receive. And while the ongoing call made by Indigenous women to tackle Aboriginal family violence is gaining traction, a silence nonetheless continues to exist.
Lack of complexity in news coverage
It is not only an absence of media attention around violence against Aboriginal women that’s notable. There is also a lack of complexity in the news when it comes to Aboriginal family violence more generally.
I recently investigated how Aboriginal family violence is reported by the Victorian print media. I found there is a tendency for journalists to reinforce family violence as an “Indigenous issue” that is inherent in Victorian Aboriginal communities. This can be seen in the way the determinants of Aboriginal violence are framed by the media.
Over a five-year period, few articles mention possible determinants of Aboriginal family violence beyond alcohol or drug addiction. Only four out of 145 articles noted family violence, including importantly the reasons why Aboriginal women enter and stay in a violent relationship, as a legacy of colonisation and intergenerational trauma.
Yet a guiding principle set out in the Victorian Indigenous Family Violence Task Force report is the recognition that:
… from an Indigenous perspective the causes of family violence are located in the history and impacts of white settlement and the structural violence of race relations since then.
The framing of family violence as an “Indigenous issue” also disregards the innovative work Aboriginal people and community representatives, such as Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service (FVPLS) in Victoria, are doing to prevent family violence.
Another example of this over-simplification is that during the five year period I investigated, only two out of 145 articles in Victorian newspapers noted that not all perpetrators of violence against Victorian Aboriginal women and their children are Aboriginal men.
In their submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, FVLPS representatives stated a need for more accurate data on the Aboriginality of family violence perpetrators. This is because they routinely see:
Aboriginal clients, mostly women, who experience family violence at the hands of men from a range of different backgrounds and cultures, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
Nicholas Biddle at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research used census data to show that 85% of Aboriginal women in Melbourne, 67.9% in Shepperton and 82.4% in Bendigo have a non-Indigenous partner. These statistics are important to consider in policy responses to, and media portrayals of, Aboriginal family violence. As Biddle suggests:
… when attempting to reduce the rate of domestic violence or marital dissolution experienced by the Indigenous populations (for example), it is important to keep in mind that the majority of the partners of Indigenous Australians who experience such traumatic life events are likely to be non-Indigenous.
While these figures are from Victoria, similar situations can be found in urban regions across the country.
So where to now?
The complexity of a news story is important. We must understand that the disproportionate rate of violence experienced by Aboriginal women stems from a long history of intergenerational trauma.
When the media portrays high levels of family violence as culturally inherent, stereotypes are reinforced and we may be more likely to accept the violence and less likely to report it.
The complexity of news stories about Aboriginal family violence depends on the source of the story. In Victoria, more complex stories always have an Aboriginal-controlled community organisation as a source instead of or in addition to a police or government representative.
So, where to now?
One answer is that journalists and government media managers need to work with organisations like FVLPS and the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency. In turn, these organisations may need more support in meeting the demand for public information. It is important, though, that these organisations determine the support they require.
There is good research into the way gendered violence against women is portrayed by the Victorian and New South Wales media. We now need to add the category of race (and arguably socioeconomic background and geographic location) to the gender analysis.
More research is needed to understand the way Aboriginal family violence is portrayed by the media, including the challenges faced by journalists in reporting on Aboriginal women as victims of family violence.
Journalists in turn need training in the ongoing impact of settler colonialism and how it works in different geographic locations. It should also include how settler colonialism continues to inform the way non-Indigenous people view and respond to Aboriginality and Indigenous issues.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
Authors: Lilly Brown, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne