Think: Associate Professor Chelsea Watego
Trust: Aunty Jackie Huggins, Co-chair Treaty Advancement Committee
Act: June Oscar, Social Justice Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission
I want to acknowledge the lands we all stand on—all our elders past, present and emerging, wherever we are beaming in from today.
Good morning everyone. I am really happy to be here and participating in this forum—it feels like the momentum is gathering for a movement to take shape, brought together by such powerful First Nations women. It is always a privilege to sit alongside Jackie, Chelsea, and Michelle, and to hear your insights thank you for your opening speeches. No doubt it is going to be a day of stimulating discussion and lots of world-changing ideas—many of those ancient that are being reconsidered in the present—all of which I know can and will be translated into action, especially when we come together, to act as a collective!
Let me start by saying happy NAIDOC week to you all! I am sure we all know the theme this year is ‘Heal Country!’ and I can’t think of a better way to mark it than to consider a resurgence of First Nations women’s knowledges through a fight to achieve First Nations gender justice and equality in Australia.
I am beaming in from my beautiful Bunuba country that sits nestled in the Fitzroy Valley surrounded by towering rangers—the most expansive the Milliwundi range—and the mighty Bandaral Ngarri, the Fitzroy River. I have spoken and written extensively in Wiyi Yani U Thangani—the report which I will come back to in a minute—about the importance of our women’s knowledges as the backbone of society, and, fundamentally, as knowledges which sustain a healthy existence for all of life throughout the cycles of time—for the human and the non-human, in interdependence.
A gender equal society is one where our women’s and men’s knowledges are practiced, maintained, taught and transferred in relationship to one another so we can ensure that all our countries are properly healed, cared for and our sites of sacredness and significance are protected.
In opening to this session, we have already heard of the destructiveness of colonial dispossession to our societal frameworks and of how the intervention of western patriarchy, means that our women have been discriminated against on the basis of sex and race, and along many other lines of our identity. It means that since colonization to the present day, our women’s position in society, our knowledges and status, is one of the most marginalized in Australia. It means that who we are and what we know is barely recognized by mainstream Australia, and hardly ever valued for the immense worth it holds.
To achieve real justice and equality for all, this has to change!
We need to dismantle these structures that perpetuate and entrench marginalization, inequalities and injustices, and reconstruct systems from the ground-up based in and informed by our knowledges. A First Nations gender equal future is where justice has been guaranteed across all areas of life from being able to access, live and work on our lands to self-determining our institutions in education, health and governance and developing our own culture and country-based economies. In reforming systems through a drive to achieve justice on all these fronts, an intersectional equality grows and becomes systemic.
First Nations Gender justice and equality is critical to realizing this future and all our rights as Indigenous peoples.
So, on that note I am very excited to be on this panel representing the ‘Act’ part of the forum today. The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report, meaning women’s voices in my language Bunuba, is full of actions and pathways forward. I am hoping that many of these actions and the report itself will become part of our collective call to action today.
For those of you who don’t know, the Wiyi Yani U Thangani report— a report that belongs to all First Nations women and girls across Australia—released in December last year, is, I believe, the blueprint for transformation that we so desperately need right now. It is the first time since 1986 that First Nations women and girls have been heard as a collective about their strengths, challenges, rights and aspirations. It provides a well overdue First Nations gender-lens on all aspects of life. I do also want to acknowledge the significant contributions of Jackie who sat on the advisory group for this process and led engagements in the NT and Queensland. What is in the report is everything women and girls spoke of that effects life. There are so many unique perspectives from our Indigenous women that would change the shape of systems.
Women across this country spoke of everything from our representation and decision-making in governance structures and the formation of First Nations women’s representative bodies to housing designed to meet our kinship and caring needs, life-long education which embeds language and culture and time on country, getting the best start to life through birthing on country, women-led businesses and the emergence of thriving culture and country-based economies.
It has been developed from the voices of well over 2000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls from the urban to the remote. This is certainly not a report driven from the top down that confines our lives to a single issue or sector and so often limits us to the silent status of victimhood.
What has resulted from everything women and girls discussed with me, and my team is an ambitious and entirely necessary First Nations female-led plan for structural change. The report contains a series of principles that anyone, and everyone, should adopt and use to shape the way we think and act—which is very relevant to today’s forum. Alongside this there are 7 major overarching recommendations designed to alter women and girls’ relationship with Australian governments and the way systems are developed and a series of pathways forward detailing necessary actions that should be taken across sectors. Since the report was released, I have been focusing on identifying and pursuing the implementation of actions within four cross-cutting themes of the report that are captured in the overarching recommendations. These are to do with enhancing our women and girls’ leadership and decision-making, supporting our Law, language and culture, investing in our healing work and recognizing and investing in our paid and unpaid work and knowledges.
Through the Wiyi Yani U Thangani report and project we have identified these as significant areas that could re-shape systems around the rights, needs and lives of our women, girls, boys and men, to enhance health and wellbeing for all of us, from one generation to the next. I want to stress at this point, progressing gender equality, which for me, is a rebalancing of the way systems operate and a re-centering of the development and functioning of institutions around the skills of women—isn’t just good for women, it’s good for everyone, men and children.
Wiyi Yani U Thangani is the framework—the most significant report we have right now—to advocate for the structural changes that will achieve First Nations gender justice and equality.
Because Australia, despite everything we face as First Nations women, does not have any sort of proper plan in place to respond to our rights and needs, nor does it have the mechanisms to achieve the many dimensions of gender equality.
That is why the other major recommendations that we are advocating for in the report is to establish a First Nations women and girls advisory body, to hold a summit in October next year dedicated to strategic dialogue about responding to our needs and aspirations and everything that is in Wiyi Yani U Thangani and from there to develop a First Nations women and girls National Action Plan that will advance our health, wellbeing and equality.
Currently, without the frameworks and mechanisms to enhance the voices of all women to occupy decision-making roles to design policies and legislation, the structures in Australia and nations everywhere are blind to the needs of our women and girls, and no one is held to account for failing to respond to us, neglecting our rights, and allowing structures to discriminate and perpetuate abuse and trauma.
We know the consequences of structural discrimination, we have seen it play out over and over since colonization. But I truly believe that many other Australians are finally awaking to how unjust and inadequate our current systems are. This report has landed at a pivotal moment in the history of this nation and the globe. COVID-19 has shown us conclusively that business-as-usual does not work. Moments of national historic reckoning are happening everywhere as we confront institutional racism and misogyny and the forces that drive growing inequalities and the destructions of peoples and the planet. What so many of us value in common, Indigenous and non-indigenous, is not greed and exploitation. It’s connection, care and health, love and support.
Those who have taken to the streets in their thousands for BLM protests, women’s rights, climate change action, school strikes—they are not just calling for a few actions, or slight changes to behaviours—we are calling for large scale reform, because the issues we face are structural and historical, a symptom of our current systems.
When there is a collective anger, as there is now, when thousands have had enough, a movement begins to form, and a movement always looks for an agenda, and goals to set that we can strive to achieve.
I have no doubt that this is the time in our lives, our moment in history, where we must act for the change that we all want, for the world we want to bring into being.
So, with that said. Let’s take action. The first thing I would like you all to act on after this forum, or during your breaks, is to go to the Wiyi Yani U Thangani website, hosted by the Australian Human Rights Commission—download the Report and the community guide which summarizes the report—or jump to chapter four in the report which also brings together all the major actions—and read it! The second thing I want you to do is download our supporter toolkit from our website on the ‘Take Action’ page and use the resources to publicly back the implementation of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani key findings and recommendations. In the toolkit is a statement that you can use to advocate for Wiyi Yani U Thangani as a framework to achieve First Nations gender justice and equality.
Or you can develop your own, based on what you think is critical and needs to be responded to. Women of the World—WOW—wrote their own statement some months ago, incorporated our principles into their organisations mandate and dedicated an entire page on their website to it.
That is another thing that we are doing this year—we are engaging and working with women’s groups and individuals across the country who are picking up Wiyi Yani U Thangani and are using it as a tool for implementation and advocacy. One significant group have been the Kimberley Aboriginal women who ran a four day roundtable, where they brought 100 women together to develop a regional action plan in response to Wiyi Yani U Thangani and to consider how to establish a Kimberley Aboriginal Women’s Council to respond to this plan. Women in the Gascoyne region of WA are arranging a similar forum for October which I’ll be going to.
I’ve been blown away by the response and how women are picking up the report and using it. I encourage you to do the same. If you want to run a regional forum knock on the door of your local government and National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), use the report and explain the significance of what you are doing, and come to us and tell us what you’re doing. Of course, not everyone has to run a forum. But what I am asking everyone to do is have a conversation. Pick up the phone, bring women together and arrange a gathering in town halls, community centres, at your kitchen table or around the campfire. Remember, Wiyi Yani U Thangani is yours to talk women’s business and take action on the ground.
Ultimately, I want to bring all of these discussions, all this thinking and action together at a summit dedicated to the rights and lives of First Nations women and girls. This forum, I believe, is the place to get strategic about making that summit happen and ensuring that across this nation we are driving the changes needed to achieve First Nations gender justice and equality. I do want to emphasize that my team and I are working tirelessly to bring all Australian governments on board.
Collectively, we have got to say, on our watch, it is time that change is going to come. We have an opportunity here, which we cannot let pass us by. We have a once in a generation report about our women and girls, filled with our voices, and we have this time to respond to it and make it into something real for us.
Let’s set the agenda to develop a First Nations women’s platform and plan for action, that can finally hold all governments and stakeholders to account, in working with us, on our terms, to pave the way to realise our rights, that belong to us and are non-negotiable.
Now all we have to do is ask ourselves what can I do, and how together are we going to make this happen.