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'Our women's voices. Our children's future' SNAICC 2019 National Conference

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Introduction in Bunuba

Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Kaurna yani u. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani.  Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

I acknowledge the Kaurna people, your elders past, present and emerging. Thank you for having us all on your beautiful country today.

Thank you to SNAICC and everyone that has come together to organize this conference. I also want to acknowledge all our community groups from across Australia who are running community-designed, led and owned and culturally grounded early childhood centers, and programs.

Thank you so much, your work is giving our children, our people the best start in life. It is just fantastic.

The work of SNAICC – what you advocate for – and the work of all early childhood educators sits very close to my heart. I have attended and presented at SNAICC in the past in a different capacity to my role now, as the CEO of Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource center in Fitzroy Crossing.

While in that role I worked hard with my community to establish our own community-controlled early childhood learning center combined with a children and parents center, which we called Baya Gawiy meaning freshwater stingray. It was designed around a model of two-way education placing Aboriginal ways of learning and knowing in equal worth to western ways. We knew that to give our children the best start they have to be strong in our culture, knowledge and identities as well as western ways of being, to successfully navigate a dynamic contemporary society and have access to all opportunities that come their way in life. Baya Gawiy continues to thrive – and I want to acknowledge our teachers from Baya Gawiy, and all the Kimberley mob who are here at this conference.

I have always been a fierce advocate for the rights of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to have the best standard of education available, from early childhood, through every stage of their learning journey, no matter where they come from. Place, culture, heritage, our gender and race should never be a factor in restricting our children’s abilities to access education that supports them to be all of who they.

But too often it is.

I have taken this advocacy for our rights to access a high standard of education and all essential services into my current role as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. I believe the work on the ground, the work many of you are all doing is critical in designing the policy frameworks that can ensure all our children, no matter where they come from have equal access to a high standard of education that supports all of who they are just like Baya Gawiy.

During my term as the Social Justice Commissioner I am committed to hearing, seeing and elevating what is being done on the ground to spaces of decision-making.

I also believe our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s voices are critical to informing the types of educational and broader societal frameworks that will give all of our children, and communities throughout life, the best possible learning journey and successful engagement in the world around them.

That is why the first thing I did when I took on the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner was to establish the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meaning Women’s Voices in my language, Bunuba. Throughout 2018 my team and I spoke to over 2000 of our women and girls across this nation, in every state and territory, to hear directly from them about their strengths, issues and aspirations.

I have heard from our women about their incredible strengths and resiliencies. They have spoken about how they work around the clock to keep our social infrastructure functioning, while doing their day job and maintaining our cultural obligations. Our women have also spoken of being our primary carers and nurturers growing our children into healthy adulthood, ensuring that our children have the confidence and security to embrace all opportunities, including educational opportunities, right from the beginning of their lives.

Women and girls have discussed every strength and issue imaginable. But education and learning and the opportunities our children have access to, has been a central theme that arose throughout the engagements.

Much of what our women have said is reflective of what our universal human rights should guarantee us.

Education is a foundational human right. It is a right in itself, and essential to realizing all other human rights. Perhaps Indigenous societies know this better than most. Our existence is premised on life-long education – I heard women and girls talk about this multiple times through the engagements.

We continuously gain, reflect and refine our knowledge through an active immersive experience of the world, where we learn about the interconnection and relations of all human and non-human things and our surrounding ecosystems. This is a knowledge to live and survive by. Our education simultaneously grows us as strong individuals and as an indispensable part of our collective society, while also teaching us how to care for and support everything in the world around us. And like all good educations it teaches us our cultural practices, obligations and governance frameworks to sustain our societies from one generation to the next. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples our elders, and parents, aunties and uncles have passed this process of learning on to our babies, children and young adults over millennia – since the beginning of time.

Our education is our societal foundation as well as our scaffolding, both so strong we have become the oldest living continuous civilisation on earth.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the most comprehensive international instrument outlining our Indigenous rights, frames our foundational rights like education within broader rights to establish our own institutions, decision-making and governance bodies grounded in our culture. Article 14 of the Declaration states that as Indigenous peoples we have a right to establish and control our own educational systems and institutions and teach in our own languages, in a way that is informed by our culture and ways of learning.

The Declaration is endorsed by this nation but not formally incorporated into our policy and legislative frameworks. That is why in realizing our rights it is vital that we pay attention to what is happening on the ground and what our women and girls have told us.

In my role I am committed to elevating our work and voices from the ground and unite it with the making of policy and legislation that directly effects the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I want the overarching policy frameworks that influence so much of what we do on the ground, to actually reflect what we are doing, and enable us to do our work more effectively so we can expand and grow – so the work that we do is part of fulfilling our rights – rather than us having to face constant barriers that restrict and control our work and limit the realisation of our rights.

Our women’s voices can help us inform these enabling systems. It is clear that women are the pillars of our society, continuously constructing the foundations and the frameworks of care across all of our communities, which is central to supporting life-long learning.

However, the vital importance of our women’s roles and the knowledge they carry is too often not recognised by broader Australian society. In fact, our women are some of the most marginalised peoples in this nation, constantly facing systemic and institutional forms of discrimination. Rather than our women’s voices being heard and listened to, they are frequently silenced and ignored.

We have heard from our women and girls that they are living within a system that is not recognising their basic rights to things like housing, education, health and financial security. As such our women have described how they and their families are trapped in cycles of poverty, homelessness and unsafe environments all of which undermines our children’s rights to access and participate in education.  

It is these conditions, as our women have told us, that result in our children being stuck in structural disadvantage. Where instead of their lifetime trajectory being one of positive learning, they can too easily be caught in the revolving door of institutionalisation.

A lifetime spent moving from child protection, juvenile detention and adult incarceration. The relationship between these institutions is well evident and yet our children are now 10 times more likely to be removed from our families care than non-indigenous children, and they are significantly over-represented in the youth justice systems across Australia. Many of our children who are in child protection will end up in detention. Women have said it to me repeatedly, this is another Stolen Generation.

The statistics tell us that our children coming from disadvantage, who are most in need of wrap-around supports, nurture and care, are those who are being detained and criminalised.

This is unacceptable and must end. Children in care, those who are dealing with complex traumas should never end up in youth detention. These are environments that re-traumatise and compound trauma’s rather than help our children to heal and recover.

To effectively respond to the systemic issues women have spoken about we have to break the cycle of inequality and interventions that create damaging life trajectories and countless poor life-outcomes. Women have been clear the system has to be flipped from crisis to prevention investment, design and implementation.

The building blocks for doing this starts with early childhood education particularly when we are starting from a position of inequality and disadvantage.

Research shows that children from lower socio-economic contexts are more likely to have a chain reaction of positive educational engagement leading to better life outcomes, set in motion by early childhood education and care, than children from more advantaged backgrounds.


Your work on the ground which is community-controlled, culturally and locally grounded and adapted, trauma-informed, holistic and innovative early childhood education, can make this a reality.

Overwhelmingly these are the principles that women and girls have described the entire system is needing to look like. Where everything is interconnected from education, regional economies, jobs, housing, to early childhood learning and supports, childcare and mental and physical health.

In terms of education specifically, women and girls have been unequivocal when it comes to the rights of their children to access culturally appropriate care and education; to be free from direct and systemic discrimination; to have access to all forms of western education that does not come at the expense of who we are – we should always have the tools to walk in two worlds; and to remain deeply connected to our culture, families and communities throughout our lives.  

We need to design a curriculum for the nation that begins with early childhood that enriches our learning with our own cultural knowledge, while informing and enhancing western forms of education.

Our children are our future, they are the health and wellbeing of our society. When we invest in them we are fundamentally investing in prevention, this is where the system change that our women and girls want can really take hold.

It is this positive trajectory that can help us all overcome structural disadvantage, and break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and inequalities to help us realise our rights and place them in equal worth to the rights of all other Australians. Changing this system is the responsibility of all Australians. Insisting that governments invest in prevention, is about developing a national narrative of equality, where everyone is given the best start in life and has the chance to succeed.

This means that we must demand that governments move away from piecemeal funding to long-term special purpose investments into developing and sustaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander early childhood education.

Such a guarantee would condemn structural disadvantage and intergenerational poverty and be a strong commitment from our governments to achieving equality across the nation and upholding and realising our human rights.

 When we release the Wiyi Yani U Thnagani report early next year report we will be making recommendations like this, that will be about structural reform. We will look toward where policy and legislation can change the trajectory and improve our women and children live for the better. We cannot go on living in the current system.

When we embark on stage two of wiyi yani u thangani – which will be focused on policy design and implementation amongst other things - my team and I will look toward working with our peoples, with people like yourselves in this room – educators and practitioners – those who are working on the ground, and others across all levels of government and sectors. Together, with many of you by our side, we can recognise the vital worth and work of our women that contributes to the health and wellbeing of our entire society. Together, we will design systems from the ground up that responds to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander needs, aspirations and the future we all want our children to have, to create and hand to the next generation for millennia to come.  

Thank you


Commission logo

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

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice