Skip to main content

Inaugural National Indigenous Women’s Leadership Symposium

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

[Introduction in Bunuba]

Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani.
I want to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and to their elders both past and present.

I also want to thank and congratulate the organisers of this event – everyone at Women in Leadership Australia and everyone at Women’s Business.

Well thank you all for having me here at this wonderful occasion – the Inaugural Indigenous Women’s Leadership Symposium! What an incredible group of women in this room today and a fantastic line up for the day ahead, fabulous speakers, so many of our women making waves across diverse sectors from the arts to science and business.

I do want to say from the outset that this might be the first time we’ve met in a forum like this, but keep in mind today that our women have been leaders since time began. We have led the oldest continuous living civilization on earth into being – as the first women, the first mothers and grandmothers we have cared, nurtured, grown, governed and shaped our society across hundreds of countries that make up this continent. Today, keep the enormity and power of that leadership in your heart, mind and spirit as you engage in the discussions and workshop spaces.

As the first woman to be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I stand here and speak with that knowing, with the spirits of my ancestors, and the voices of fiercely intelligent, strong and caring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are leading the charge for change here and all across this nation. 

When I walk into spaces as the Social Justice Commissioner, I always say that I am not a lawyer, a doctor, or a bureaucrat. What I am is a Bunuba woman, I know my Law and language, and I’m from community, constantly working and meeting my obligations within an extensive family and kinship network. But I also went to university and am currently writing my PhD. Like all of us we straddle worlds, we combine our deep knowledge of place and kin, of big picture systems and ecology with new learnings and that provides us with a huge range of knowledge and expertise. You’ll know how much as women we have to juggle within the multiple spaces that we work and live – we fight for social justice, for our rights to land, for our elders, children and grandchildren to be on country, to have access to essential health and justice services, and then we look after our entire family!

As Indigenous women, as women in leadership, you carry a remarkable legacy. Because of all that you are, you bring a wealth of unparalleled knowledge into spaces of decision-making.

As one of the first speakers today I think it’s a good idea to reflect on our leadership – those that have past and those who continue to walk beside us. We walk in the footsteps of ancestral giants. There are many remarkable women whose names we might not know but in our lives and capacity to lead today, all women, all our ancestors, across time are standing with us.

Names we do remember, that must remain etched into the history books of this nation state as part of our process of truth-telling, are our warriors - Truganini and Barangaroo, who fought for our existence on the colonial frontier. And later Faith Bandler, Evelyn Scott, and Mum Shirl asserted our civil, and political rights in the face of grave injustices.

It is because of these women and so many others that we succeed today across all sectors and arenas of public life, while still defending our unique rights and interests so our political and institutional structures will reflect and realise all of who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

And then I think of our heroes, our mentors and friends doing exactly the same work today made possible by this great legacy, from our girls and young women to our matriarchs our senior elders who hold cultural authority. I think of Vonda Malone, Deb Mailman, Ash Barty, Rachel Perkins, Pat Turner, Marcia Langton, Megan Davis, Linda Burney …the list of names, the achievements the spaces we are in are endless.

And there are the women in this room and the women speaking at this Symposium – you are also testament to this great legacy and ability to lead.

The breadth of topics covered by women today from entrepreneurship and business to policy design and implementation, activism, sports and politics is evidence of the array of positions we hold across Australian society and the vital perspectives we bring to them as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. There is so much potential – in many ways it is already happening – for our past, present and future to influence contemporary Australia in dynamic and innovative ways.

In all the roles we occupy from the mother, and grandmother to the carers of our families and communities to the CEO, artist, activist, scientist and doctor, we have many gifts, talents and so much to contribute. Each one of us has a right to our distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. As Indigenous women we should feel confident to be all of who we are in Australia today, while remaining secure in our identities. We should not be coerced, and never feel the need to assimilate to be successful. It seems obvious that our nation would embrace us with pride and celebration, encouraging us to be within every institution and at every decision-making table, knowing that we bring exceptional intercultural knowledge and skills to work spaces, communities and to broader Australian society.

When I got the job as Social Justice Commissioner, I knew I had to make the nation aware of all of what we do. I had to raise our voices, our expertise from the ground to every space of decision-making.

So, one of the first things I did was to launch the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Project in December 2017. 

Over the course of 2018 my team and I travelled all over Australia to hear directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls about what matters to them their strengths, challenges, aspirations and solutions. It has been 33 years since the 1986 Women’s Business report, the last time we heard from our women and girls at the national level.

When I sat with groups of women and girls the first question I asked them was: What makes you strong as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman? What are your internal resources, unique skills and capabilities that keep you going?

I want you all to think about that today – how do you keep that at the forefront of your mind as you do everything you do? Think positively and be proud of who you are, I promise you, you all do so much.

What women and girls told me across the country is everything I’ve mentioned from incredible resiliences, humour, love, grit, intelligence, determination – our women seriously have it all.

Imagine if our systems where built in the image of our strengths, built to support and enable our women, built by us, for us?

But, as women tell me of their strengths, they also tell me that they are exhausted.

They tell me this truth: that the system does not recognise our tireless work and contribution to society. For too long our policy makers, legislators and institutional bodies have been deaf to our voices. There is no excuse for this absence when we know we have always been present, and never been silent.

The ongoing denial of our voices is a denial of our rights. It is a grave injustice. Women have told me that our basic rights to things like adequate housing, food, education, health, financial security, and our rights to land and country are not secure.

Without our voices at the table, women have told me that these rights are far from guaranteed, and rather than actively realised through structural supports, are being undermined. As such, poverty, racism and trauma are pervasive across our communities, disproportionately impacting our women and children and exposing our families to punitive legal and welfare systems.

The statistics of rising incarceration rates, homelessness, children being removed, extreme financial stress and insecurity and a gap that won’t close are all evidence of punitive policies at work.

A system that does not value the incredible worth and consequence of our women’s actions is a broken system. Women have said, we are educated, and we are strong, but it is the system that knocks us down, it takes our children, but still we are fighting. We are not broken.

In the face of what can seem like overwhelming adversity and systemic discrimination, our women and girls are considering multiple pathways forward shaped by their lived realities and expertise.

Women have spoken to me of needing a system grounded in our culture and lived realities and our knowledge. A system that supports a holistic way of living where education, regional economies, jobs, housing, childcare and mental, spiritual and physical health are all interconnected. To do this we need serious committed structural change that can enable the reconstruction of institutions that simultaneously reflect our needs while realising our rights.

This might sound like a big agenda, but I know we can do it. We have had enough of business as usual, we cannot pretend that real long-term and meaningful success can be found in a system that is focused on crisis intervention and not prevention.

When I travel the country and meet with our women and girls and all our peoples, I constantly hear a momentum for change rising up in our voices.

Our women are saying that the system is failing us and this does not have to be, because if you put control back in our hands, we hold the solutions and we will make change happen. 

That flame of self-determination is igniting in our communities across the country. Because we know that self-determination was never a policy era, it is an inherent right that belongs to us as a distinct people and it never ends.  

Our position can no longer be ignored or tolerated.

At this point in time, with the evidence at hand, and our voices singing out loud and clear in vigils and protests across the country demanding no more preventable deaths, no more deaths in custody, we need to harness our strengths as women leaders, unite our people and friends, Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and channel that energy into serious change.

As women in leadership we are allowed to experience the grief and anger that is justifiable in the present, while drawing on our strengths to ensure that we are not consumed by it. It is our responsibility to not rise above anyone, but to stand and bring people together and determine a collective vision for a better future that we all want. It is our role to lift others up and empower each other, never tearing anyone down. Together we can, and will, charge forward in our common pursuit of justice, slapping down the ugly hand of racism and discrimination whenever it is in our way.

Together we can reconstruct the systems we want and need from the ground up, from the deep ancestral past and the tens of thousands of years of wisdom to realise our rights in the present and to help realise a better Australia. When I think like this I think of our young ones who give me so much hope in their activism and serious belief that our Indigenous thinking is the response needed to ecological crisis, they are fighting for better forms of creative and inclusive education and they use social media to mobilise action against injustices.

Within us, within our youth, within your leadership are the ingredients for change.

That is why when we release Wiyi Yani U Thangani next year we will be calling for a raft of structural reforms that respond to what our women have said. These reforms will range from better working process grounded in cultural security and trauma-informed practice, to changes to the out-of-home care and justice system and demanding an end to punitive welfare compliance regimes. But at the heart of it all will be a demand for our voices to be heard at the local, regional and national levels. That to be truly self-determining, while rectifying injustices and disadvantage in our lives, our voices must be central to designing policy and legislation.

It’s time we get the permanent seats that we deserve at the decision-making table of this nation.

I look forward to working with you all to make this change a reality. Remember what I said at the start, as you go forward with today keep your unique strengths within your heart and mind. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women we have a right to be all of who we are. Let us not change for this world, but let the world change for us and I guarantee it will be the better for it.


Thank you


Commission logo

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice