Our voices heard and understood. Our lives and expertise recognised. Our actions counted and invested in as critical to the health and wellbeing of society. These are the powerful and determined calls of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls in Australia today.
They are set-out and responded to in the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing our Rights, Securing our Future 2020 Report. This report and its First Nations female-led plan for structural change is ambitious in scope, and entirely necessary and well overdue. It is the culmination of a national engagement project, the first of its kind since the Women’s Business Report in 1986.
As the first woman to become the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I knew it was time for our women and girls to define their lives on their own terms.
The candid and fearless conversations of our women and girls, speaking out from hundreds of ancestral countries, have shaped Wiyi Yani U Thangani—an expansive whole-of-life report. This Wednesday, the Wiyi Yani U Thangani report was tabled in Federal Parliament, and our women and girls' voices were elevated to Australia’s corridors of power.
The report presents fundamental truths so long undervalued and overlooked: that our women are the backbone of our societies and have been for millennia. In every part of life, our women and girls are there. They are, and always have been, integral to the making of history and the future we all want and deserve.
On hot nights I camped out under the stars with our senior Law women who have lived through a history of appalling discrimination—of stolen wages and being locked out of their Country. Still, they sing their songlines with strength and love. I watched them speaking to our children in language, telling them our creation stories.
I’ve been with women who drive young people to activities and give food to those sleeping rough. They do this after long days in jobs where they are frequently overworked and underpaid. When home, they open their doors to give counsel to family or community members in need.
I have sat in classrooms with girls who are so proud of their identity. Despite hearing racism from teachers and students, they fought to embed First Nations histories and knowledges in their lessons. Girls have said to me with so much conviction that Australia should celebrate First Nations heritage and culture, not just at NAIDOC, but every day of the year.
Stories like these are on every page of Wiyi Yani U Thangani.
Against this full picture of vibrancy and triumph, Wiyi Yani U Thangani shows how imposed Western systems continuously fail to recognise the vital worth and contributions of our women and girls.
I have been told how these unresponsive systems entrench inequality and discrimination forming the structural conditions of powerlessness and poverty, making our women and girls increasingly vulnerable to harms. I have heard from women living in houses with two rooms and 20 people, who have nowhere to go and are trapped in violent relationships. Women living below the poverty line, have told me of their struggles to find work and put food on the table for their children, and without support turn to alcohol as self-medication.
These stories are not uncommon. At every turn women face structural barriers and a system so absent of adequate and accessible supports. They are exhausted.
The global shock-waves of this year—the pandemic, bush fires, increasing political polarisation and Black Lives Matter—remind us of just how important systems are in forming safe, healthy and sustainable economic, social and ecological existences.
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report, in responding to First Nations women and girls, captures this visionary call to action. It puts forward seven overarching recommendations that both tackle the root causes of systemic issues and highlight the alternatives needed to reconstruct enabling systems.
At the national level, we need action to eradicate racism, to embed truth-telling, cultural safety and trauma-informed training across all services and sectors, and—as a matter of urgency—to increase investment into community-based programs that will help us to heal from intergenerational trauma and sustain and revive our knowledge systems, Law and languages.
In truly overcoming inequalities and to rectify powerlessness, the path ahead must empower our women and girls and invest in their expertise and the critical work they are already doing. That is why—as a priority—Wiyi Yani U Thangani recommends establishing a First Nations women and girls National Action Plan, a women and girls advisory body to design and monitor the implementation of the National Action Plan, and targets for our women and girls to lead across all levels and sectors.
Our women and girls are ready to enact this plan. Throughout the engagements I heard the determination of our senior women to transfer our knowledges for generations to come, I saw in our women their power to keep going no matter what and to lay strong foundations for our young ones, and I was struck by our girls’ incredible potential to lead.
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report puts in the hands of all Australians the lives and truths of our women and girls. Read and listen to them. In responding we will unleash their determination, power and potential to improve their lives and that of all Australians.