Australia is having a national conversation on violence and sexual abuse. It’s a conversation driven by the community – ordinary people turning personal experiences to platforms for action, social media campaigns, conversations in homes and workplaces. Australia’s mindset is changing; these problems are emerging from the shadows.
But in Indigenous communities these problems are still encased in denial, secrets and silence.
The Smallbone Report is the latest example of adults, community leaders and authorities failing to deal with sexual offences against Indigenous children.
The report describes the miserable life of children in two Queensland Indigenous communities and the absence of parental care and law enforcement. Sex offences 2 to 7 times the state average, with 85% of victims aged under 17. Sexual activity normalised for children as young as 10. Families not knowing where their children are overnight and unconcerned. Police not trusted. Community leaders turning a blind eye. People failing to intervene in known or witnessed abuse fearing reprisals.
Those fears are why the Queensland government didn’t release the report when delivered in 2013. Community leaders asked that it remain secret. Only now have details been revealed.
Can you imagine a government withholding a report on sexual abuse of any other group of children for 3 years? Over this period a Royal Commission has heard evidence of sex offences ignored and covered up by some of Australia’s most influential institutions. The public outrage has been palpable. But the secrecy around the Smallbone Report barely raised a whimper.
Worse still, report after report tells us Indigenous children are being sexually abused nationwide. The Gordon Report in 2002, the Breaking the Silence Report in 2006 and the Little Children Are Sacred Report in 2007, for example, found endemic family violence and sexual abuse in communities in WA, NSW and NT. Offences rarely reported. Communities protecting perpetrators but not children. Child abuse normalised, intergenerational and self-perpetuating.
The Breaking the Silence Report has a chilling account of some adults seeing sexual assault as a normal experience. One participant said: “A young mum. She said to me, ‘Well, you know, she should put up with it, you know. I had to put up with it, why can’t she?’ Like it’s a rite of passage, like that’s acceptable.”
Where’s the community anger? The demonstrations and campaigns? What are we doing about the abuse of our children?
The Smallbone Report’s author describes the problems as “complex”; as having confounded governments with no one knowing quite what to do.
Sexual assault is a crime. Governments deal with crime waves all the time. They don’t throw their hands up saying they don’t know what to do. They implement solutions until something works.
That this crime wave continues unchecked points to one conclusion - no one, not even Indigenous adults, think Indigenous children are important.
Why else would Indigenous communities protect perpetrators and ignore, even shun, their victims?
Aboriginal activist Roy “Dootch” Kennedy recently pleaded guilty to sex offences committed in the 1990s. His victim endured years of abuse as a child with devastating impact. She’s now been shunned by her community. Kennedy was a highly regarded elder with power and responsibility. Fear of backlash discouraged her from coming forward. The backlash is real. I know an Aboriginal man abused by community members for saying Kennedy deserved gaol.
Authorities must ensure that sex offenders experience the full force of the law and that that children are protected from sexual assault and removed from abusive environments. Children should be educated about personal safety and told who they can safely report to. Instead of children thinking abuse is normal and adults want their silence, they should be taught abuse is wrong and adults want them coming forward. It’s not complex. Bravehearts, for example, has programs teaching even very young children about personal safety and how to report abuse.
Ultimately child abuse won’t end without parents taking responsibility for safeguarding their children and securing their future. This includes basic parental duties – knowing where your children are, making sure there’s food at home, and sending your children to school.
Finally, we can’t just blame these problems on factors outside our control – like invasion, racism, historical wrongs, the “system” or poverty. There’s no excuse for abandoning children. My mother used to say “If anyone touches one of my kids just give me 5 minutes with them.” She took care of us, despite experiencing poverty, racism and injustice.
In traditional societies, breaking the law brought harsh punishment. If you didn’t respect the rules and norms of society, you couldn’t remain in it. Our ancestors would be ashamed and angry to see the breakdown in behaviour and respect for the law described in these reports.
Child abuse will destroy Indigenous society. It’s up to us – our mobs - to end the abuse and the silence.
The abuse of Indigenous children must end
1 April 2016
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine