I am woman, hear me roar

The Age
June 02, 2006
By Russell Skelton, Yuendama

The women of Yuendumu are finding the solutions to problems plaguing their community.

She sits there in the harsh afternoon light listening attentively to other Yuendumu women talking about violent "husbands" and the families who defend and protect them no matter what.

Occasionally she interjects with a softly spoken comment in Warlpiri and the circle of women nod in agreement. Outwardly, this 25-year-old mother of one appears at fi rst glance to be another shy young Aboriginal woman. A bright purple parka, blue jeans and long hair falling neatly over her shoulders suggests personal pride. But her body language suggests something else. Her eyes avoid direct contact; she stares at the red dirt beneath her feet. She sits side-on, ready, it seems, to take fl ight.

Her reticence is not shyness, but fear.

After listening for more than an hour to the older women swapping experiences, she volunteers a censored snapshot of her life. "I have been beaten many times by my husband. My child has been beaten too. It happens when he is drunk, but not always."

The young woman told The Age her name, but asked that it not be printed or her photo published because she fears for her safety. For the purpose of the interview she goes by the name "Mary". Although Mary's husband has been arrested on numerous occasions and has a domestic violence order preventing him from approaching her, she says that is not enough to protect her from his drunken rages.

Trapped in a vicious circle of violence, Mary's predicament is made worse by the fact that both her family and her husband's accuse her of being a troublemaker when he lashes out. She candidly admits to receiving injuries requiring medical attention but is too embarrassed to detail the injuries or indignities she has been subjected to.

Mary would like to leave Yuendumu, a community of 1200 on the Tanami Track 300 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, but that would mean abandoning her family and anyway, she wonders, where would she go?

But there is something remarkable about Mary and the women of Yuendumu. They successfully curbed the petrol-sniffing epidemic with a "boot camp" program that involved taking young offenders out bush with elders and leaving them until they kicked the habit. Now the women are attempting to deal with domestic violence and sex abuse. Although they are yet to see the tape of the ABC's Lateline program in which Alice Springs Crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers revealed numerous cases of assault, murder and rape of women and children, they know what she is talking about. They are acutely, even painfully, aware of the issues raised by Rogers - male violence in indigenous communities - because they live with it daily.

Connie Nakamarra White is particularly proud of the fact that Yuendumu women started the fi rst night patrol some 14 years ago - rounding up vulnerable kids, driving them home and intervening in domestic fi ghts when the situation turned dangerous. "Sometimes we make a difference, sometimes we can make people listen," she says.

She agrees with Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough that violent men should be removed from the community but questions how that would work and if at some point abused women might be blamed by angry families for sending the men away. Indigenous life is complex and male authority goes mostly unchallenged. Connie, like the other women who agreed to talk to The Age, knows that three or four policemen cannot protect over 700 women and children 24 hours a day. "It is hard stopping both families from siding with the man. When men are sober it is better, but when they are drunk kids get hurt and run away."

While Yuendumu is a "dry" community, the women say grog is smuggled in at 4am when nobody is around and the night patrol no longer running.

Rather than resign themselves to the inevitable, the women have taken active steps to improve their safety. They successfully lobbied Northern Territory Justice Department fi eld offi cers to have a safety house built. Opened last August and located opposite the police station, it provides a haven for an average of three or four women and their children a week.

Pam Malden, co-ordinator of the Yuendumu women's centre, says more women are using the safety house but confi dentiality is a problem in the small community. Not all women are prepared to face the public shame of seeking refuge in the shelter, particularly while it is staffed by women from the community rather than from outside.

It is difficult to precisely calculate how many women and children are victims of family violence and abuse, but most women interviewed believed it had touched the vast majority of Yuendumu families in one form or another. That means hundreds of incidents a year, rather than scores.

Elizabeth Katakarinj believes a lot more women will come to use the safe house because domestic violence remains rife and men still need to do more to address the problem. "The elders need to talk to the young fellas and hold meetings about it. It not just older couples fi ghting, it's younger couples. We have a lot of young mothers, kids 16 and 17, and they fi ght just like anybody else."

It can be diffi cult for the police as well and even though numerous domestic violence orders (DVOs) are issued by the bush court, they do not always solve the problem. "We have a system where a complaint is made, men will be questioned and taken into temporary custody, but the jail has no capacity," says one of the women, who declined to be identifi ed because she heads a prominent family.

She said a DVO will be made as a condition of bail and the man ordered to stay away. But the big problem then becomes stopping the woman from inviting the man back. And when they do, police are powerless. The problem is not the law; it is people, kinship and culture.

And this is where the night patrol plays a constructive role protecting children. "When both parents get drunk and the kids are left to wander around, that is when they are most at risk. The night patrol rounds them up and looks after them."

The Yuendumu women's night patrol is the longest running in central Australia and came about when kids were stealing petrol to sniff and other kids were getting burnt in resulting accidents. The initial mission was to confi scate petrol and alcohol, although recent court decisions now prevent the confi scation of alcohol.

The women say payback related to domestic violence is a problem because it is done in secret and nobody wants to talk about it either before or after it happens. Abused wives are scared of losing their families, children or even husbands. As for the shortage of adequate housing, a problem not unique to Yuendumu, the women say that works both ways. "Overcrowding causes fi ghts, but it also can help because there are plenty of people around to intervene. When couples are on their own it is more dangerous," says another woman who declined to be identified.

Ruby Naparurria Williams, who often goes on night patrol, agrees. She believes there needs to be more education and a lot more talking between men and women before the level of domestic violence drops. The women claim sex abuse is not such a problem, certainly not on the scale talked about in other communities.

Because violent men are facing the "white man's court" and the "Aboriginal court" as well, the Yuendumu women say that can be enough punishment to put an end to the abusive behaviour.

But in other situations, like Mary's, punishment makes little difference. Elsewhere abusers have returned from jail to infl ict grievous injuries on partners. And in other cases when men and women drink together, allocating blame can be diffi cult because an abused woman may attack a man when he is drunk for something he did week earlier.

A scan of the bush court register reveals that Yuendumu has far fewer cases of domestic violence than Tennant Creek and that the majority of cases being heard are driving or alcohol related. Victoria Whitelaw, a senior solicitor with the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service says domestic violence cases in Yuendumu are "definitely at the lower end of the scale, although more serious cases are heard in Alice Springs".

It's a sign perhaps that community strategies like the night patrol and the shelter are producing results. What is evident from the women is that they know family violence is a problem to be confronted and dealt with.

Maisie Naparrula Wayne takes the view that only a "whole community" approach will work: "We need strong people and elders to intervene in the worst cases and get to a stage where we can get a husband and wife can reach a settlement. We don't have that yet."


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