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Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Forum: Tom Calma (2006)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

family violence and child sexual assault in Indigenous communities – A
human rights perspective

Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and
Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity

Child Sexual Assault
Parliament House, Tuesday 5 December 2006

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal
peoples of the Eora nation, the traditional owners and custodians of the land
where we are gathered today, and pay my respects to their elders and to the

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • The
    Hon Dr. Meredith Burgmann – our host today;
  • Members
    of Parliament;
  • Marcia
    Ella-Duncan, the Chairperson of the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault
  • Sue
    Green, Eileen Baldry, Chris Cunneen from the University of New South Wales who
    have organised this workshop, and co-speaker, Mareese Terare of UWS;
  • Representatives
    of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations;
  • Parliamentary
    staff and departmental officers; and
  • Distinguished
    guests and fellow Indigenous Australians.

thank you for your attendance today. The presence of such a distinguished group
of people indicates the seriousness with which we all see the issue of family
violence and sexual abuse in Indigenous communities.

speakers have highlighted NSW specific issues and my role today is to provide
some suggestions, from my national perspective as Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner, on the issues that I consider we must face
if we are to make progress in addressing family violence and sexual abuse in
Indigenous communities.

So to begin, I want to set the scene by
discussing a report that was released in October this year by the
Secretary-General of the United Nations on violence against
children.[1] The key recommendations of that
study set the context to this issue.

The report highlights that violence against children is
endemic globally, and among all sectors of society. The report contains some
overarching recommendations which provide guidance to governments in their local
environment and also international actions to combat violence against children.
They include the following:

  • Strengthening
    national and local commitments and action: That all governments develop a
    multifaceted and systematic framework to respond to violence against children
    which is integrated into national planning processes. There should be a national
    strategy, policy or plan of action on violence against children with realistic
    and time-bound targets, coordinated by an agency with the capacity to involve
    multiple sectors in a broad-based implementation strategy. The implementation of
    the national strategy, policy or plan should be systematically evaluated
    according to established targets and timetables, and provided with adequate
    human and financial resources to support its
  • Prioritizing
    prevention: That governments prioritize preventing violence against children by
    addressing its underlying causes. Just as resources devoted to intervening after violence has occurred are
    essential, governments should allocate adequate resources to address risk
    factors and prevent violence before it occurs. Policies and programmes should
    address immediate risk factors, such as a lack of parent-child attachment,
    family breakdown and abuse of alcohol or drugs. In line with the Millennium
    Development Goals, attention should be focused on economic and social policies
    that address poverty, gender and other forms of inequality, income gaps,
    unemployment, urban overcrowding, and other factors which undermine
  • Promoting
    non-violent values and awareness-raising: that governments and civil
    society should strive to transform attitudes that condone or normalize violence
    against children, including stereotypical gender roles and discrimination,
    acceptance of corporal punishment, and harmful traditional
  • Enhancing
    the capacity of all who work with and for
  • Providing
    recovery and social reintegration
  • Ensuring
    the participation of
  • Creating
    accessible and child-friendly reporting systems and
  • Ensuring
    accountability and end impunity: by building community confidence in the justice system by, inter alia,
    bringing all perpetrators of violence against children to justice and ensure
    that they are held accountable through appropriate criminal, civil,
    administrative and professional proceedings and
  • Addressing
    the gender dimension of violence against children;
  • Developing
    and implementing systematic national data collection and

recommendations provide a useful framework for our activities here in Australia
and specifically in New South Wales.

So let me now discuss the
issues in Australia. I must
begin by stating
upfront and unequivocally that family violence and child abuse in Indigenous
communities is abhorrent and has no place in Aboriginal society.

Family violence and abuse is a scourge that is causing untold
damage and trauma among Indigenous communities. Indigenous men, women and
children are entitled to live their lives in safety and full human dignity. This
means without fear of family violence or abuse. This is their cultural, and their human

Let me
also state upfront that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customary law does
not condone family violence.

Family violence and abuse of
women and children has no place in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Customary law cannot be relied upon to excuse such behaviour.

That is the customary law that I know. Perpetrators of violence and
abuse do not respect customary law and are not
behaving in accordance with it.

HREOC has stated clearly in
submissions to sentencing courts and to inquiries that customary law must be
applied consistently with human rights standards. In other words, at no stage does customary law
override the rights of women and children to be safe and to live free from

Violence and abuse is also in breach of criminal
laws across the country. I am on record several times stating that if an
Indigenous person commits these types of offences they should be dealt with by
the criminal justice system just as any other person would be. There should also
be swift intervention from care and protection systems to ensure that the best
interests of the child and victim are the primary consideration.

Government officials and community members should be fearless and
bold in reporting suspected incidents of violence and abuse. This means
addressing the code of silence that exists in many Indigenous communities about
these issues. And it means government officers meeting their statutory
obligations, meeting their duty of care and taking moral responsibility in the
performance of their duties as public officials. Many do already. Regrettably,
some do not.

This Forum is taking place because we are committed to
seeing an end to family violence and sexual abuse in Indigenous communities.

We acknowledge that excellent work has already been done in New
South Wales to identify the pathways forward, in particular through the
Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, and also the work of the Aboriginal
Justice Advisory Council.

By convening and participating in this
Forum the participants send a clear message to the New South Wales government
that we want to work with you to ensure that there are deliberate and determined
steps taken to address this issue. We also indicate that we intend to hold you
accountable for how you respond to this issue.

This Forum follows a
number of significant meetings relating to family violence over the past year,
including an inter-governmental summit on the issue in June. I attended that
Summit as an observer.

One of the things that I noted at the Summit
was the very useful role that was played by the NSW government in seeking to
ensure that the response to the crisis of violence and abuse in Aboriginal
communities is a measured one, that balances the need for law and order in
communities with broader strategies to address the underlying causes of
dysfunction and violence, and which also focuses on building the capacity of
Indigenous communities to confront this issue.

Let me remind you of
the Communiqué of the Intergovernmental Summit on Violence and Child
Abuse in Indigenous Communities, titled Safer Kids, Safer

It states:

Intergovernmental Summit... agrees that the levels of violence and child abuse
in Indigenous communities warrant a comprehensive national response.

have reconfirmed... that:

  • everyone
    has a right to be safe from family violence and abuse;
  • preventing
    family violence and child abuse in Indigenous families is best achieved by
    families, communities, community organisations and different levels of
    government working together as partners;
  • successful
    strategies to prevent family violence and child abuse in Indigenous families
    enables Indigenous people to take control of their lives, regain responsibility
    for their families and communities and to enhance individual and family
    wellbeing; and
  • the
    need to address underlying causes and to build strong and resilient families.

all jurisdictions over recent years have taken significant steps to address the
problem, the Summit acknowledged that better resources, improved methods and a
concerted, long-term joint effort were essential if the necessary breakthroughs
were to be achieved.

children continue to be overrepresented in substantiated cases of child abuse
and neglect. Indigenous people also continue to experience increasing levels of
violence and abuse. A series of reports – the latest conducted in New
South Wales – point to endemic problems, particularly in remoter areas but
also evident in some regional and urban areas.

therefore needs to be accelerated – in particular the imperative of giving
Indigenous Australians confidence that the justice system will work for them...

will work with Indigenous people to implement flexible local solutions,
acknowledging that all parents have a responsibility to ensure their kids are
safe and need to access services provided to ensure their well-being...

Now while I consider that the outcomes of the Summit were too
narrowly focused on law and order initiatives, and that some of these
initiatives such as proposed changes to sentencing laws are inappropriate and
potentially discriminatory, the Summit Communiqué clearly provides a
serious level of commitment from all governments to address family violence and child abuse.

This includes
the NSW government. So it is timely to ask what has become of the final report
of the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce?

The Taskforce
report is comprehensive in its scope and contains many recommendations. It is
complex and it proposes some substantial re-engineering of how the government
goes about its role in relation to Indigenous communities.

So a
response will no doubt take time.

But there are two things that
should underpin that response and the timeliness of it.

First, as the
Summit communiqué states: Action needs to be accelerated. Accordingly,
developing a response to a report such as this one needs to be treated as a
matter of high priority.

Second, fundamental to such a response must
be engagement with Indigenous communities, individuals and service providers.
This is a fundamental component of the Two Ways Together strategy, and also the
Justice Agreement – so it needs to be put into action.

I am not
so convinced that to date, the Taskforce’s report has been treated with
the urgency and priority that it deserves, or that it has been progressed in a
manner consistent with the commitments made by the NSW government. And that is
also why I am here today – to lend my voice and support to the report and
to the directions that it sets forth for government and community partnerships
and action.

It is a report based on extensive consultation and
Indigenous engagement and so its recommendations and ways forward should not be
dismissed or put into the too hard basket.

I want to end by
reiterating some core principles that I have identified about addressing family
violence in recent months.

I have published a book titled Ending family violence in Indigenous
communities – Key issues, that provides an overview of research by
HREOC on this issue. It shows the inter-relationship between different issues
and the complex policy responses necessary to address family violence and sexual
abuse in communities.

It also identifies ten challenges for addressing family
violence and sexual abuse in Indigenous communities. To me, these are some of
the key factors that we need to address to achieve lasting change. And while
the challenges are directed to Indigenous people in this instance, the
principles are equally applicable to the broader Australian community.

  1. We
    must turn government commitments into action. Governments have been making
    commitments to address family violence for some time already. What we need is
    concerted, long term action which meets these
  2. Indigenous
    participation – This action must be based on genuine partnership with
    Indigenous peoples and with our full participation; including the participation
    of women, children and young people.
  3. Support
    Indigenous community initiatives and networks. There are significant processes
    and networks already in place in Indigenous communities to progress these
    issues. We need to support them to lead efforts to stamp out violence, including
    developing the educational tools to assist them to identify and respond to
    family violence.
  4. Human
    rights education in Indigenous communities. There is a need for broad based
    education and awareness-raising among Indigenous communities to progress these
    issues. Working with communities to send strong messages that violence
    won’t be tolerated, that there are legal obligations and protections, and
    that individuals have rights, are critical if we are to stamp out family
  5. Don’t
    forget our men and don’t stereotype them as abusers. Family violence is
    fundamentally an issue of gender equality. We need strong leadership from women,
    but we also need the support of Indigenous men if we are to make progress in
    stamping out violence. Indigenous men need to model appropriate behaviour,
    challenging violence and stand up against it, and support our women and nurture
    our children.
  6. Look
    for the positives and celebrate the victories. There are good things happening
    in Indigenous communities, even if the national media is not interested in
    reporting them. We need to confront family violence, but also do so by
    reinforcing the inherent worth and dignity of Indigenous peoples, not by
    vilifying and demonising all Indigenous peoples.
  7. Re-assert
    our cultural norms and regain the respect in our communities. Family violence
    and abuse is about lack of respect for Indigenous culture. We need to fight it
    as Indigenous peoples, and rebuild our proud traditions and community structures
    so that there is no place for fear and
  8. Ensure
    robust accountability and monitoring mechanisms. There must be accountability
    measurements put into place to hold governments to their commitments. This
    requires the development of robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. These
    will also allow us to identify and celebrate
  9. Changing
    the mindset. We require a change in the mindset of government from an approach
    which manages dysfunction to one that supports functional communities. Current
    approaches pay for the consequences of disadvantage and discrimination. It is a
    passive reactive system of feeding dysfunction, rather than taking positive
    steps to overcome it. We need a proactive system of service delivery to
    Indigenous communities focused on building functional, healthy
  10. Targeting
    of need. Let us be bold in ensuring that program interventions are targeted to
    address need and overcome disadvantage. As it stands, government programs and
    services are not targeted to a level that will overcome Indigenous disadvantage.
    Hence, they are not targeted in a way that will meet the solemn commitments that
    have been made. They are targeted to maintain the status

I acknowledge the update by Dr Burgmann
and I am encouraged that a decision on the report is pending. Nevertheless, I
urge the New South Wales government to not waiver in their resolve and to take
the lead in responding to issues of family violence in Indigenous communities.
The Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce Report provides a basis for you to
do this.

The value of the commitments that you have made as a
government will be measured not by your talk, but by your actions. There remains
a lot to be done and it is critical that this Report does not gather dust on the
bookshelves of politicians and bureaucrats as so many past reports on family
violence and child abuse have nationally.

Thank you




September 13, 2009