The Guardian Opinion Editorial by June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission
No more. We want an end to the violence. An end to violence of all kinds – of women and men, boys and girls, murdered and missing; of children taken away, locked up and harmed; of racism that directs anger and hatred at our bodies. No more! It must end.
These are the rallying cries of recent weeks. The words pouring out online, in social media feeds, across radio waves, news desks, reporters’ microphones and from the streets.
The tide of voices demanding change mounts. Like flood waters, in recent weeks, voices rise with each breaking story – of increasing rates of incarceration, violence against women and children, of police brutality. Revealing yet again the disproportionate levels of harm experienced by First Nations peoples in all reaches of Australia.
It seems like chaotic unspeakable tragedy, mirroring the current weather systems, and over and over the public asks why? But we all know, deep down, that these are the inevitable outcomes orchestrated by human-made systems never designed for justice.
I know these stories of harm against our peoples are coming to the fore because of the presence of First Nations women and men in the public eye. I thank them all for their tireless courage, speaking out, shouting into what can feel like a bottomless void. It matters – your voices. They, we, matter.
For First Nations people, these are not new truths.
We feel them in our own bodies. We all have sisters, sons, daughters and grandchildren who have struggled with trauma and abuse, who reach out for support and help, but too often there are no trustworthy services or resources available. We know firsthand what it is to be trapped in violent relationships with those who say they love us, but we have no housing to escape to, or finances to free us. We watch family self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, when there is simply nothing else to turn to.
It is structural violence. The devastating reality is that perpetrators of violence within communities are victims themselves, re-enacting the violence that they have experienced in a seemingly endless and often deadly cycle.
Children are taken away because of this. They are imprisoned at the age of 10 because of this, punished for expressing the behaviours of marginalisation.
This is not happening because our families can’t recover, or care for one another –there is so much love – but because there is nothing available to enable recovery. The cruel reality is that our society invests in and upholds punitive structures and institutions that re-perpetrate and compound traumas. Understandably, our people do not trust the services and institutions that too often imprison us and remove our children when we call for help.
The other truth is: we absolutely know what is needed in response, and as an alternative, to this current reality.
Australia must invest in First Nations peoples’ self-determination.
It is our 60,000 years and counting of rich, living heritage and culture that is the foundation for solution-making, and from which we can develop structures, institutions and economies formed by our kinship system and interwoven values of respect, love and inclusivity. Those are values to survive and thrive by, which for tens of thousands of years have guaranteed that all our peoples have been embraced and cared for, never excluded.
The question is: how do we move from knowing to acting and embarking on change?
In recent weeks the truths I write have begun to punctuate the surface of public consciousness, through Four Corners and other media reporting.
But it has been the loss of Cassius Turvey that has shaken the nation. All our worst fears made real – a child taken from our lives because of hate.
In Mechelle Turvey’s words – in a mother’s pain and love – we find the possibility for another Australia. She has called out the injustices of the present, condemning hate and violence, while bringing Australians together to grieve and honour her son’s life at nationwide vigils.
To realise that better version of Australia, we must all demand change.
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani – Women’s Voices – project that I have led is a part of this journey of connection and transformation. It has heard from thousands of First Nations women and girls who have spoken through pain and tears so their voices can be heard, their stories felt and shared – so that all of us may know we have a responsibility to make change happen.
On Monday the Australian Human Rights Commission released a report as another part of the Women’s Voices project – the First Nations Women’s Safety Policy Forum Outcomes Report. At the heart of this report is the deep recognition of the importance of First Nations women’s lives, diverse strength and knowledge in constructing societies of care, safety and wellbeing.
Again, it puts forward our women’s voices, their lived experiences, knowledge, expertise and stories. It sets out a pathway for how to confront and end violence in their lives. It details the steps required for designing effective plans and policies.
Our nation asks, in the throes of pain, what to do, how do we make change happen? I say, hold your humanity close and not at arm’s reach. Read, listen and respond to the voices of our women. Work with us, and let us self-determine the way ahead, because we know how to end violence for us all.
Image sourced from The Guardian: Mechelle Turvey (centre), mother of Cassius Turvey, marches with family, friends and members of the public during a rally in Perth on 2 November, 2022. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP