Many reports and books come across my desk, but Our Greatest Challenge by Hannah McGlade stands out as an important and profound document. It goes to the heart of the dignity of human existence: the fundamental rights of children and women — and their sense of dignity and worth in society.
There may be many who would rather Hannah had not written the book. It could also have been titled "Our Greatest Taboo" and we owe her a great debt for her courage.
Without wanting to over-simplify what is a complex and difficult subject, child sexual assault and violation of human rights on children and women in Aboriginal communities has its beginnings in the historical context of colonisation with the treatment of women and children by settlers; continued inadequacies of the justice system; the culpabilities of some institutions; and politically and racially motivated policies, none more abhorrent than the forced removal of children. All of this should be more loudly acknowledged.
But Hannah’s point is that we have to take a fundamental and simple stance: to view the current continuing violence on children and women as, first and foremost, a serious violation of human rights that causes suffering and trauma to the victims and entire Aboriginal communities.
Once we adopt that highest of watermarks — basic human rights — every other consideration assumes a different perspective.
UNICEF’s experience in the most difficult developing countries is that only when there is widespread acknowledgement and acceptance of a previously taboo issue, followed by open and inclusive discussion, can we begin to really heal and rebuild.
Only when Southern Africa openly acknowledged that HIV/AIDS was endemic within its region did it begin to mitigate the problem. Only when Northeast Asian countries openly acknowledged human trafficking across their borders were programs put in place. It is through open debate and education that we can we begin to change behaviours in the practice of female genital mutilation in the central African nations.
While not suggesting these are comparable examples to Aboriginal rights, each have two key features in common: a large element of cultural sensitivity, and situations where cultural arguments have been used to justify non-action and denial.
Our Greatest Challenge provides a comprehensive review of the literature, the development of legislation, and the many reviews and reports. However, it is Hannah’s testimony and that of the countless others she persuaded to speak that provides the book with stature. More than an exposition of complaint and grievance, it also challenges every constituent, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous, in this most disturbing of histories since colonisation.
One key theme is the failure of both the community and the system to afford the children and women directly impacted by violence a voice.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child lays out in simple and unambiguous language the unassailable rights of every child to health and education but also to thrive and be heard.
Who cannot feel the sense of frustration and injustice of young Millicent sent from Sister Kate’s Children’s Home to work on a farm where she was routinely raped by the man of the house. When she tried to tell the matron of the home she had her mouth literally washed out with soap, and warned not to tell the other children.
Or Rob Riley (boys were also sexually assaulted) who said "no one would have believed us. We would have received a beating". "No one heard our cries in the night," another institutionalised child said.
Hannah also highlights that even mothers and grandmothers either could not, or would not protect their children, seeing sexual assault as "just something you had to go through".Perpetrators and communities stigmatise child victims. This is one reason why so few cases have been brought to trial — the experience is so traumatic that victims regret ever starting the process. As Hannah states, "Silence is reinforced, speaking is punished".
Hannah takes us forensically through the Australian criminal justice system and the history of judgments in cases of child sexual assault. Here we suspend our disbelief in learning how the system has contributed to this silencing: all too ready to accept the dubious claims of anthropological evidence to support a defence citing cultural norms.
Most astonishing and offensive is that entities such as the North Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Services have so frequently used the defence of Aboriginal culture as an excuse for sexual violence, on behalf of the perpetrators.
This is a clear and shocking abdication of natural justice for the victim under international human rights law, and an indictment on those sharing the same cultural identity as the victim. They and others who excuse acts of violence or silence victims on the grounds of "consent", "duty", or "under promise" themselves share in the perpetration of that violence upon children and women.
In UNICEF, we regularly see examples where when women are given a voice and the resources, they have the capability to effect major change from within.
I also saw this in my own tribal community of Northern Ireland. I grew up in civil strife which had its roots in centuries of conflict, oppression and injustice. After more than 2000 deaths through terrorism in the 1970s and 80s, a strong and courageous group of women stood up and declared they would no longer harbour the men of violence. Vilified and called traitors to the cause, but it was their courage which led to the Good Friday peace agreement, which holds to this day.
Hannah offers the following observations for a way forward. First: stop the ambivalence surrounding the criminal act of sexual assault on children and women. Rather, use the language of human rights and call on the proper enforcement of the international conventions to which Australia is a signatory.
Second; transformation has to come from within the community where the abuse is happening. If women gain support and positions of influence on decision-making bodies, then children must too have a voice. Children’s powerlessness is a key factor underlying child sexual assault.
Last: we need new approaches to integrating new grassroots community involvement with the criminal justice system and the implementation of recommendations from previous reviews
The publication of Our Greatest Challenge is timely, as it follows hard on the heels of the UN’s periodic review of the Australian government’s performance in implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In a welcome show of cohesion and solidarity, UNICEF and over 100 child and family focused agencies, presented its assessment to the UN ahead of the Government.
Its report was deliberately entitled Listen to Children and was used as a primary reference document to challenge the Australian government representatives. A consequence of the UN review was the announcement by the government to appoint a National Children’s Commissioner, something which has been lobbied for, for over 20 years.
The UN also called for a second position; one with a specific focus on the human rights of Aboriginal children.
We have here a huge opportunity to influence that role and its remit. Surely now the time has arrived for those cries of children who have gone before, and those who suffer today, finally to be heard.
This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Dr Norman Gillespie at the launch of Our Greatest Challenge, by Hannah McGlade.
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