The men to admire

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Ken Canning is a social activist and published poet and author, beginning his writing career in Boggo Road Prison. In 2016 federal election, Ken stood for the Senate with Socialist Alliance.

On International Women’s Day, I want to talk about the two groups of men that I admire: those who have never hit a woman and those who have and own up to it.

Both groups combined can play a significant role in stopping violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

I write as a proud Bidjara Murri man. I write as a man who is not without a past, I have done time for my share of wrongful deeds, though using my fist on a woman is not one of them. It’s the willingness to admit your behaviours that shows the strength of character, and in some ways I can have more respect for those men that have struggled with their issues and found the ways to take control of themselves to be better husbands and fathers.

When looking at this pervading issue of domestic violence in our families and communities, it is necessary to view the social climate that we live in. As the First Peoples of this continent, we know the societal and systemic oppression that have affected Aboriginal people’s lives since 1788. Domestic violence among First Nations Peoples takes places in an environment where the powers pulling the levers are far out of reach. This alone will cause a multitude of problems, one of which is that oppression always implodes. But I believe firmly that this violence is predominantly a male problem and it demands to be solved by our men. Their oppression is not a free pass to normalise violence and cause our women and children to live their lives in terror.

I talk to a lot of Aboriginal men dealing with violence against women, and the reasons they give me come thick and fast. The main one I hear is, ‘She attacked me first.’ While this can often be true, I advise these men to follow the advice I received decades ago: talk to the women in their own family. A verbal fight spiralling out of control can be a complicated scenario, and talking with the women is one way for men to take that step to try and get to the root of the problems.

But I have found that this defence is more often an excuse by men to use violence when they’ve given up using words. And it’s right there that self-control needs to step in. Screaming abuse is a damaging and frightening form of violence and these men tell me their partners can also be verbally violent. This as well is very true, but what should be seen is the actual difference between a man, who has a physical presence, and a woman screaming. When men talk to me about this, I ask them to visualise how they feel when their partner is screaming at them and do they feel fear. The answer is invariably, no. I follow that up with having the men visualise the same scene and how the woman may be feeling. Most admit the woman would experience all levels of fear.

Another factor in the normalisation of violence is the old notion of keeping silent. Some of our young women turn to the older ones for guidance, only to be told ‘just be quiet about it’, or ‘no good will come of talking about it’. I do not blame these older women, this is a taught response from a time when violence against women in most sections of society was considered almost normal. But with violent men, silence will not make the matter go away. We need to encourage all women to come forward to talk about what they are being subjected to.

We know that domestic violence is a significant problem in many of our communities and has been for quite some time. Many programs have been put in place but just as many have failed and the violence continues. We need to design our own ways of dealing with this issue that is crippling generation after generation. This cycle must be broken but can only be broken when both our men and women can work together to find more culturally aware solutions.

We are at a time when we need good strong men to stand up and act. For brothers to be better husbands and fathers, having our sportsmen doing paid advertisements speaking out against domestic violence is just not good enough and is about as effective as one drop of rain in the desert. What we don’t need is the wiffle waffle from those in positions of power. When Stan Grant asked Senator Pat Dodson the direct question ‘Is it fair to say, though, that this issue of domestic violence has not had the same attention as other issues have, for instance the incarceration rate?’, Senator Dodson answered, ‘There are a range of things that haven’t had the same weighting applied to them in relation to this, umm, in relation to many things in the social arena for Indigenous people.’ As though, one day, we’ll get around to this pesky violence issue. This violence isn’t an item on a laundry list of problems confronting us. It is the core issue facing us right now. It is destroying families and it is destroying men’s lives as well.

How do we get men to own their behaviours?

For my part, other men are crucial to the battle. We have to deal with the perpetrator. This requires a whole of community approach, to create conditions to sit, talk, probe and question the individual to find out exactly what is driving the violence. And for the men themselves to leave their own pre-judgements aside and reach out and attempt to find the causes of violent behaviour.

Of course, I don’t expect that everyone will agree with what I have stated and that is their complete right. What I aim to do more than anything is to open up a dialogue about this tragedy that faces our women on a daily basis. If we do not, the epidemic will continue and our suffering remains constant.




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Leah Armstrong, Chair of the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office, is a Torres Strait Islander woman with over 20 years experience in the business and not-for-profit sector


International Women’s Day is founded on actions, not platitudes and words. It celebrates the fact that vulnerable women took collective action to fight for their rights as many Australian Indigenous women to this day continue to do.

International Women’s Day is a great deal more than a lapel button and hosting a morning tea. It is more than simply acknowledging the mere existence of Aboriginal women or acknowledging the fact of past injustices; we need to use this day to consider the problems that Indigenous women face today: from historic disadvantage, homelessness, domestic violence and lack of opportunity in locations around New South Wales.

I speak on this from the perspective of a Torres Strait Islander woman fortunate to have been involved with incredible community-based programs in the business and not-for-profit sector throughout my working life. In my current role as Chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office’s (AHO), recognising women’s responsibilities in families and our communities means creating openings and empowering Aboriginal women with practical steps within our priority programs and housing based opportunities.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #BeBoldForChange. It is a theme we would do well to consider at a time when Australian Aboriginal women face outcomes that are far from parity, from cradle to the grave. Housing is at the centre – of good health, education, employment and cultural inheritance. It starts young. Aboriginal women are the centre of the Aboriginal household, they are the pillars of strength in the family home and, by extension, the communities in which they live. This is a significant cultural factor that is too often not acknowledged by housing suppliers.

I would like to share with you the story of an AHO client, Cheryl-Leigh Partridge. Growing up in the country town of Glen Innes in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, Cheryl-Leigh saw first hand that the relationship between the police and the local Aboriginal community was not always positive and she sought to do something about it – by entering the NSW Police force. Her choice meant making the big move to Sydney when she was accepted into the Indigenous Police Recruitment Our Way Delivery (IPROWD) Program, an entry pathway to the NSW Police Academy.

The AHO was able to support Cheryl-Leigh, and two of her colleagues, by providing accommodation close to their study and training centre. Cheryl-Leigh said the Program was central to her being able to complete the course and take her next step on the path to becoming a member of the NSW Police Force.

“The program I was in involved doing four training sessions a week”, Cheryl-Leigh said. “We had to get up at 5am and were getting home really late. It was great having somewhere safe to come home to.”

Without this specialist housing, Cheryl-Leigh doubts that she would have been able to complete the course.

Cheryl-Leigh Partride Aliesha Prince Jazmin Mary Brown IPROWD

Housing help: Cheryl-Leigh Partridge, with fellow students Aliesha Prince and Jazmin Brown (photo courtesy AHO)

Having ‘somewhere safe to come home to’ is, inexcusably, not available for all women. The AHO is supporting women at their most vulnerable. With the shocking statistic that an Aboriginal woman is 35 times more likely to be hospitalised for domestic violence injuries than other women, the AHO’s six safe houses in remote New South Wales provide crisis, transitional and exit housing. The AHO has strategies in place to ensure that women are not left homeless and saddled with debt when they and their children are escaping violence.

In addition, our partnership with New South Wales Corrective Services to provide stable accommodation for women exiting custody, is driving change. Housing is provided for up to 12 months to allow women stable support to transition back into the community.

These are just some of the examples that my role as Chairperson of New South Wales Aboriginal Housing Office has given me. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of these important and life changing programs for Aboriginal women.

Each one of us – women, men and non-binary people joining forces – can be a leader within our own spheres of influence. We need to “Be bold for change” pragmatic in action, and all work together to accelerate parity for Aboriginal women. Through purposeful collaboration, we can help women advance and unleash their limitless potential.

This is a challenge that we face.

On International Women’s Day I urge everyone, and indeed all of you reading this article, to do more than pay lip-service to ideals. I urge us all to #BeBoldForChange, be bold for parity and take action on ensuring Aboriginal women continue to shine.




Dr Marlene Kong MBBS, FRACGP, DRANZCOG, MPH is a Worimi (NSW) woman and leads the Indigenous Health Stream at the Kirby Institute, University of NSW (Sydney)

What the new cervical cancer screening program in Australia means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women

A new screening test designed to safeguard Australian women from the risk of developing cervical cancer will be rolled out this year on 1 December 2017. Delays to the registry set-up by Telstra Health postponed the rollout, initially set for 1 May. Fortunately, the delays will allow for meaningful public engagement and communication to take place for these significant changes to an aspect of women’s health to take place – if the time were to be used for this purpose.

One of the most important public health steps to execute when implementing any new medical intervention program is diffusion, to allow smoother transition for the community to absorb, process and accept the major change that will affect their lives.

An on-line petition by Change.org opposing the new changes to the screening program has since been pulled following an alert by the Australian Medical Association that the information was inaccurate. What this signifies is a critical lack of adequate communication between Australian health policy decision-makers and the public. It is an issue that intensifies the health prevention information needs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other vulnerable women.

Australia’s national cervical cancer screening program, which commenced in 1991, has halved the cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates based on the Pap test and Australia’s world-first HPV vaccination program, introduced in 2007. The new HPV-based test is predicted on evaluation models to drop that rate by a further 15%. Two major key changes in the new cervical screening program are the raising of the screening age from 18 years to 25 years and replacing Pap smear tests from once every two years with a HPV-based test (swab instead of smear) which can be taken up to every five years.

There are two important factors for Indigenous women to take on board in regards to the above: unless you actually screen at all for cervical cancer risk, and whether you have had your complete HPV vaccination course, are two of the most important predictors of whether you will also reap the important prevention benefits from the cervical screening program (inclusive of the HPV vaccination program).

Eighty per cent of women who develop cervical cancer have never been screened. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are one of Australia’s most marginalised health populations in regards to accessing the national cervical screening program. Some remote Aboriginal communities have less than 20% cervical screening rates. Poor access to primary healthcare and poverty are just a couple of reasons for this poor screening rate.

Also, there is evidence that although the National HPV Vaccination Program had high coverage rates of about 73% in 12-13 year olds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth had an average of 10% less coverage in both Queensland and Northern Territory (the only two jurisdictions with published data on pre- and post- HPV vaccination HPV prevalence rates).


Despite statistics indicating that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have much higher rates of cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates than non-Indigenous women – incidence is about three times higher and mortality six times higher respectively – the HPV vaccination program was only freely accessible for women under the age of 26 years. Older women wanting access to the HPV vaccine had to pay for it at a cost of around $100 per vaccine for a three dose course. Had it been also offered free to Aboriginal women of all ages when introduced in 2007, many more cervical cancer morbidity and mortality may have been prevented, not to mention cost savings in healthcare and lives. Other marginalised women with poorer health outcomes for cervical pathology are those in lower socio-economic groups – ‘postcode disadvantage’ – and from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Behaviour change to make cervical screening a habit for such women is a key to the success of this program. It is also vital that other upper stream changes occur including representation by these groups at the decision making levels that determine such programs, such as the Standing Committee on Screening or Medical Services Advisory Committee.

The conflation of epidemiology and statistics is too often used to mask real health disparities that continue to exist in smaller disempowered groups. Health economics is thought to be a cost saving measure for governments, however, we continue to see lack of political will to decide what is best for the most disadvantaged groups in our society. Unfortunately, short-sightedness ends up costing our health system a lot more not just in terms of money but economic stability, too, when lives are affected. Tackling gender and ethnic inequality including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage are vital mechanisms to persist in changing systems to allow full benefit of such screening programs to all Australians.









RAWA statement – 19 December 2016

Fractured rib, fractured responsibility

The Redfern Aboriginal Women’s Alliance stands firmly in solidarity with the family and loved ones of Ms Dhu, Western Australian Aboriginal people and Aboriginal women around the country to demand accountability of those involved in the circumstances that led to her death from a heart attack at just 22 years of age.

Western Australia State Coroner Ros Fogliani’s inquest report recounts the actions and attitudes of a string of people who were responsible for Ms Dhu’s care and instead showed gross disregard for her health and wellbeing. RAWA is left with not a shred of doubt that this was because Ms Dhu was an Aboriginal woman.

The coroner’s report shows us the characters that work our hospital and police systems and how together they can spectacularly fail to give proper care to vulnerable Aboriginal women. The working relationship between police and hospital staff is critical – and their shared influence matters. Vulnerable Aboriginal women are especially prone to this working relationship being one that values the humanity of the person in their care. Cops and clinicians share a complicit understanding – especially in country towns – and their conversations based on earned trust privilege them with decision-making powers that drastically affect the life of the person in their care. They didn’t trust Ms Dhu. The shared decision was that she was untrustworthy.

The Coroner’s inquest was not about finding person or persons criminally responsible for her death and the 11 recommendations do not include charges against any person involved in Ms Dhu’s treatment. RAWA supports the family of Ms Dhu in their pursuit of findings that may identify criminal responsibility and, at the very least, an acknowledgement of moral accountability. Because at its core, Ms Dhu’s story is about the kind of people we have become and the kind of people we want to be in modern Australia.

Starting with her boyfriend, Dion Ruffin, twice her age and double her size, with a history of domestic violence. His “tussle” with Ms Dhu broke her ribs and opened her susceptibility to the infection that eventually claimed her life.

The medical staff at the Hedland Health Campus whose actions and decisions reproduced the dismissive environment that a vulnerable Aboriginal woman was placed in over and again.

The police, especially Constable Matier who was marked for special comment by the coroner for his inhumane and callous treatment of Ms Dhu as she was dying, whose cruel authority signifies the systemic failures that the justice system is renowned for.

RAWA notes that despite the release of footage of Ms Dhu’s agonising final days in police lock-up, no royal commission has been called into the soaring death and injury of Aboriginal women. The continued lack of the elite political sphere to show up and set domestic violence against Aboriginal women at the top of the social justice agenda is apparent against the West Australian premier’s pleading for recognition of police officers’ “difficult situation” in their worklife.

If we are to make a better future where Aboriginal women and girls can live happy and healthy lives without fear, we need to be able to trust that they will be treated with respect and dignity. We need to support Ms Dhu’s family to face the task ahead of them to go on and change the circumstances that allowed her unnecessary death.

NSW has benefited from the implementation of the Custody Notification System and RAWA supports the Coroner’s recommendation endorsed by Ms Dhu’s family and the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee to implement CNS in WA.



For further comment:  Nardia Green 0435 319 066 Suzanne Ingram 0400 983 812


RAWA STATEMENT – It’s time to speak up about speaking up – 6 April 2015

It’s time to speak up about speaking up

The Redfern Aboriginal Women’s Alliance fully supports the women at the centre of the Billy Gordon saga to have a voice and speak up about domestic violence against the Queensland MP.

As Australia waits on Gordon to break his silence and make the announcement that will decide his future and that of the Palaszczuk government, RAWA says it’s time to speak up about speaking up about violence against women and children.

Comments criticising Billy Gordon’s two ex-partners’ decision to come forward disregarded the women’s duress to speak up about a crime. And yet many in our community know the depressing fact that most cases of intimate partner violence go unreported to police.

Women reporting domestic violence in our community face an onerous process – overshadowed by enduring reproach and reprisals from family, friends and community that very few Aboriginal women relish – and several choose not to. In effect, when faced with the dilemma, anybody who cannot vouch personally as a direct witness to violence would sooner shut down her voice than his.

Consider, then, the decision for the women in Billy Gordon’s life. To raise their complaint at any time meant speaking up against a charming Aboriginal man rising to political influence, powerfully connected, wrapped in the enchantment of the-boy-from-the-bush-made-good, popular voice of the people and a warrior of the cause. Reporting such a man because he’s a public figure is not incentive, it is more likely a deterrent.

The repercussive danger that allegations of domestic abuse reinforce the ‘all black men are bashers’ stereotype is everpresent, as some commentators have pointed out. But in the words of experienced Aboriginal community campaigner on domestic violence and co-founder of ‘Blackout Violence’, Dixie Link-Gordon (no relation), “We’re not standing beside them holding up their fist for social justice when they use the other to pound women down”.

Recently returned from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Beijing+20 (2015) in New York City, Link-Gordon says, “Indigenous women throughout the world are still the most vulnerable. Speaking up is hard for these women.”

In February the Queensland Domestic Violence Taskforce handed down its report, Not Now, Not Ever, with the finding that “Culture and attitudes affect the ability of victims to report violence and seek help, and influence the willingness of the community to hold perpetrators to account”. The United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence conducted throughout the Asia-Pacific found that many people including women “prescribed to the dominant social norms that legitimize inequality and the use of violence against women”.

The taskforce’s key message is “ultimately cultural change needs to come from individuals and the community directly”. The Not Now, Not Ever report was said to have motivated one of the women from Billy Gordon’s past to come forward.

Empowerment of women is imperative to changing social norms and breaking the culture of silence. Noel Pearson’s opining that Gordon was “thrown under a very brutal bus” illuminates the innate difficulty in this. RAWA does not condemn Billy Gordon for behaviours that earned him his criminal record as a juvenile and we note nor did Anastacia Palaczszuk. The Premier dismissed him because “he was completely and utterly dishonest” to her. As the old adage goes, it’s not the act itself, it’s the cover up that will do you in. There’s a decisive difference between being thrown under a bus and running head on into it.

International and local research show that a common marker in the range of Intimate Partner Violence Typologies is “inequity in the relationship”, a factor that is consistent across all types of intimate relationships including LGBTI. This area of power and inequity is the growing focus for research in managing relationship conflict and preventing intimate partner violence. It is in this domain of strengthening relationships and tackling underlying causes where attention is needed because we cannot rely on legal processes to fix it. The critical work of building trust needs to happen in families and across our communities as well as between Aboriginal people and the state.

The Billy Gordon episode gives us an opportunity to examine our attitudes toward women who make a complaint of domestic violence and the inherent responsibilities for men in our community to be accountable. When an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman is 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence and 35 times more likely to be hospitalised than other Australian women, more than ever we must not be silent no matter who the accused is. Men are intrinsic to this change. Our collective rights progress cannot afford the price of silence if it shepherds abusive men into positions of power and privilege.

Billy Gordon is entitled to and will likely afford himself the best defense to the domestic violence allegations against him, which he has publicly denied, if one is needed. It is up to the police to decide if there is a case to answer. But he is now a divisive figure across the nation. Clearly, it is not a safe climate for Billy Gordon should he deem there to be an admission to make. But if he did, what would that do for a shift in the narrative? Not for the first time, Aboriginal people are central to putting a significant cultural change of national importance to the test. And the Queensland government, led by a woman, hangs on his decision to stay in power.

For further comment:        Dixie Link-Gordon 0410 724 815 Suzanne Ingram 0400 983 812