I'm a Western Desert woman and I want to be heard

The Australian
Letter to the Editor
May 20, 2006

I REFER to your article "Raping children part of 'men's business' " (16/5).

I challenge, in the strongest terms possible, any suggestion that Aboriginal culture is to blame for endemic levels of sexual violence against children in Central Australia. It puts down the cultural values that I grew up with.

I'm a 70-year-old Western Desert woman. As a child, I was indeed promised to a husband older than myself, but I never experienced the aberrant abuse described in your article.

I would like to make the following points:

Men's business was conducted under strict laws over a prolonged period of time. Men who'd been dealt with under those laws remained under the authority and control of the Elders. Any violation of the strict code of proper behaviour was immediately punishable by sprearing or worse.

Sexual relationships were strictly regulated and could occur only in the context of prescribed kinship and generational relations. There never was a sexual free-for-all whereby initiated men could abuse or molest women, much less children and infants.

A major difference in men's business nowadays is that the effective control of initiates by older men has largely broken down. The authority of older men has been undermined since European contact.

The situation is made worse when young men go through law in an area other than their own and return to their country with no effective controls in place. They may then indeed feel they are a law unto themselves.

It is true that the custom of payback can lead to the intimidation of witnesses and victims of abuse. Adequate policing would offer one measure of security and possibly pre-empt violent behaviour.

The whole fabric of Aboriginal society on the lands has been challenged from within and from without. Substance abuse and pornographic and violent vidoes and TV have challenge the authority of the Elders and led to the disempowerment of women, contributing to the current state of dysfunction in some communities.

Violent behaviour is not acceptable in the communities but the capacity to do something effective is lessened by confusion over authority, such as two systems of law and the non-recognition of indigenous approaches, voices and solutions.

We may well suffer from "tragedy fatigue", but this does not mean that our voices are muted. We challenge the Government to hear and listen to our voices.

Mona Ngitji Ngitji Tur

Croydon, SA   

I LIVE in and work for a remote Aboriginal community. In considering the debate about social dysfunction in communities such as mine, I ask you to consider how you would cope living like the people here have to live.

Take at least 10 people from your extended family - children, the frail elderly, relations with addictions or mental health problems - and then imagine them living with you and your family in a small, three-bedroom house. Imagine that maybe only one, or two, if you are extremely lucky, has some sort of part- time paid work. Imagine that there is no cinema, no restaurant, no shopping centre - no form of family entertainment to allow you to get out of your crowded house. It is 150km of dangerous, car-destroying dirt road to the sealed road and another 300km to a town with such facilities. Fuel costs $1.70 per litre.

Imagine this for a year, two years, for your lifetime. Imagine the impact on your children: how can they do any school homework, get a good night's sleep or get your undivided attention, even for a moment? How would you personally cope with the noise, the mess, the unending chaos of such a household?

We need to tackle the fundamental problems that cause social dysfunction in remote communities, and in this town we need to start with housing and community infrastructure. I was angry to hear Mal Brough say that this isn't the issue and I challenge him to try living like the brave people here do and see for himself how it feels.

Kerry Shegog

Ernabella, SA   

OUR smirking Treasurer proclaims that we are debt-free. The state of Aboriginal communities tells us otherwise: we have an enormous debt to repay.

Expessions of concern from politicians seem hollow when so little of the budget surplus is used to address indigenous disadvantage and misery. The problem culture is not traditional Aboriginal culture; it is the culture of neglect and blame-shifting that is pervasive in both commonwealth, state and territory governments.

David ScrimgeourVDIV> St Peters, SA   

WHILE Australia can gather the resources and expertise to assist neighbouring countries in crisis, we are lacking the resolve to comprehensively mobilise task forces and government agencies to tackle the most horrendous suffering in our own country as indigenous people are left to self-destruct.

How can we claim to be a civilised nation, smugly debating our values and the ethos of a fair go, while turning our backs on some of the most disadvantaged people on earth, who happen to be our country's first people?

Keith McEwan

Banks, ACT   

DOES John Howard not recall moving Aborigines into mainstream Australia when he scuttled ASTIC? It would be nice for him to admit we now have a mainstream problem.

Bernie Dean

Mt Morgan, Qld

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