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Dr Hannah McGlade is the Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University. Hannah is a Noongar human rights lawyer, researcher and social justice activist, and chairs Aboriginal Family Law Services. She is the author of ‘Our Greatest challenge, Aboriginal children and human rights’ (Aboriginal Studies Press)

Human rights for Aboriginal women: a long way to go yet

Every year the United Nations marks March 8 as International Women’s Day as a day of celebration for women across the world and an opportunity to mark progress towards the realisation of gender equality. Sadly the situation in Australia for Aboriginal women gives little cause to celebrate. The widespread incarceration of women experiencing very high levels of family or partner violence along with increasing removals of children shows that we have a long way to go to ensure human rights for Aboriginal women are respected.

Aboriginal women encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence based on both race and gender, and contact with the legal system will more likely see them processed as offenders rather than victims. This was most evident in the case of Ms Dhu, a young 22 year old West Australian Yamatji woman who died in a Port Hedland police cell just three days after being taken into custody for non-payment of fines.

Ms Dhu sustained injuries at the hands of her de facto partner shortly prior to being arrested and although both she and her grandmother – who contacted the police with her fears – told police officers she had been ‘flogged’ by her partner and sustained rib fractures as a result, they refused to acknowledge her as a victim with injuries, deciding against all the objective evidence that she was ‘faking’ it.

The circumstances of Ms Dhu’s death, captured on CCTV, show the deadly consequence of gender-based violence amplified by individual and systemic racism that permeated the responses from the police.

The police did not act alone. Ms Dhu was taken to the hospital on three occasions but barely assessed by the non-Aboriginal nurses or doctors who did not undertake basic medical procedures, such as taking her temperature or performing x-rays, which would have shown her serious infection and illness.

Medical staff accepted police opinion that her condition was merely ‘behavioral’ and sent her back to the cells where her condition of sepsis infection deteriorated before she died. Aboriginal people across Australia have reported that racism in hospitals and health care responses is commonplace.

State Coroner Rosalind Fogliano, who examined Ms Dhu’s death, described the conduct of police and health professionals as ‘inhumane’ and ‘unprofessional’. However, she did not refer any of the police or health personnel to the state prosecutor or any regulatory body. Most of the officers involved in Ms Dhu’s death have since been promoted. No medical staff faced any disciplinary actions.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee made extensive submissions concerning the way in which gender based violence and racism, Ms Dhu’s intersectional identity and vulnerability – as Aboriginal, woman, victim, prisoner – but this was ignored by the Coroner.

We do not agree with the lack of justice afforded to Ms Dhu. As the Aboriginal girls choir of the Pilbara ‘Maaliya’ sing, ‘Now they’re Whitewashing away the evidence’ asking us ‘Did Dhu die for nothing? No she didn’t!’

As Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women across Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Canada, we have made a stand in support of Ms Dhu’s family, advocating for the dismantling of institutions perpetuating structural and systemic forms of violence and abuse.

Aboriginal women in some parts of Australia are believed to constitute the most victimised group of people or women in the world, and are the ‘fastest growing’ prison population in Australia. It is well known that incarceration rates for Aboriginal women are linked to the double discrimination that women face in the criminal justice system on the basis of both race and gender.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Dubravka Šimonović heard from Aboriginal women on her recent visit about the suffering resulting from child protection practices that are leading to widespread removal of Aboriginal children, including newborns infants, from their mothers at rates exceeding those that occurred under the discriminatory era of the ‘The Stolen generations’. Ms Šimonović noted the high levels of Aboriginal child removal under policies that she thought were ‘belonging to the past’ had continued and, in effect, maintained the cycle of violence against Aboriginal women. A specific National Action Plan on violence for Aboriginal women would be consistent with Article 22 and 23 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Imprisonment of Aboriginal women should only be a matter of last resort.

Contrary to human rights, the lives of Aboriginal women and girls nationwide are undermined on a daily widespread basis through entrenched practices of discrimination impeding the wellbeing of families, communities and cultures. This year on IWD we call on all Australian women to stand in solidarity with us as we resist widespread human rights violations being witnessed.



this article is an edited version as appeared on ABC Opinion www.abc.net.au

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