A Yuin doctor and deputy chair of the Abbott government’s handpicked Indigenous Advisory Council has called on the media to stop blaming Aboriginal culture for child abuse, stating assimilation is not the answer to solving the complex problem.
Professor Ngiare Brown writes in an op-ed in The Australian today that the media and public condemnation demonising communities as “absent, incompetent, weak and dysfunctional” overpowers the complex subject of child sexual abuse.
She says that perhaps media “are emboldened by an (Aboriginal) silence they perceive as permissiveness” and called on Aboriginal communities to “reclaim our voice and our power” and commit “ourselves to the safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal children and all children”.
Prof Brown is deputy chair of the 12-member panel of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members which has largely replaced the only nationally representative elected body, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in advising governments.
Her comments come in the midst of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s week-long visit to north-east Arnhem Land, where he will meet with the IAC and Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson.
Mr Abbott was a minister in the Howard government when the controversial NT intervention was launched following a media-driven moral panic over child sexual abuse in remote communities.
It was launched following public shock over old allegations of child sexual abuse made by NT Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers on ABC's Lateline program, followed by false claims of “paedophile rings” in Aboriginal communities made by then Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough and fanned by Lateline's demonisation of the Mutitjulu community.
While child abuse is a problem in Aboriginal communities, just as in white communities, there has never been any evidence of organised paedophile rings in remote NT communities.
Meanwhile, the intervention, which entrenched racially discriminatory policies like compulsory income management and porn and alcohol bans in prescribed communities but did not lead to any improvement in lowering child abuse rates, has continued under Labor and Liberal governments.
Real concerns remain that prior and informed consent has never been given by those affected, despite consultations spearheaded under Labor.
Since then, Aboriginal culture has been repeatedly attacked for promoting child sexual abuse by writers like Louis Nowra, Stephanie Jarrett and Elizabeth Farrelly, and more prominently by NT government minister and Warlpiri woman Bess Price.
But Prof Brown writes that child sexual abuse has never been a part of Aboriginal culture.
“The physical and sexual abuse of children is not a part of Aboriginal culture. Like many cultures globally, it is in fact our cultural responsibility to protect the vulnerable, and our sacred duty to love and nurture all children.
“If decisions are made that allow a child to stay in unsafe, damaging, physically and emotionally dangerous environments, then there is something wrong with the decision-making, the policy, the legislation and the interpretation – not with our culture.”
But Prof Brown says silences within Aboriginal communities still have to be confronted, and broken.
“We too refuse to act, and turn a blind eye to violence and abuse. [When that happens] we are also responsible for the resultant tragedies and should be held to account.”
Prof Brown says respecting and revitalizing Aboriginal culture can act as part of the solution.
“The rights of the child, cultural rights, and child safety are not mutually exclusive, adversarial constructs – they are mutually beneficial. National and international evidence confirms that if Indigenous peoples are better connected to their culture, they develop a better sense of self, identity and self-esteem.
“In turn, we are more resilient and experience better outcomes across social determinants – health, education and employment.
“Assimilation is not the answer – in fact improved social cohesion for all can be achieved through cultural diversity, and support for positive cultural and social practices as long as they are consistent with the laws and regulations of the jurisdiction within which people are citizens.”
Prof Brown says it’s time to look at how child protection is resourced, rather than “grandstanding” and continuing “to demonise Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture to justify personal agendas”.
“I am not an apologist to justify personal agendas. I am not an apologist for criminal behaviour – we need to significantly improve community and inter-agency responses to the identification of sexual predators and perpetrators of violence against children, and we must ensure the provision of acute and long-term care for victims.
“However, we must also concede that current systems are inadequate; legislation and law enforcement responses are inconsistent; policy processes lack evidence and rigour; and service agencies are under-resourced to meet complex social needs in a coordinated, comprehensive manner.”
Prof Brown says that the child protection workforce “lacks numbers, capacity, support and essential professional development opportunities and that caseworkers are physically and emotionally overwhelmed”.
That's despite growing concerns over the rates of Aboriginal child removal across the country.
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