Resilience and reconstruction

Women's agency in rebuilding strong communities

Wiyi yani, Galinda yani
'All women, all girls'

Wina nginyji: Mimi, Ngowiji, Ngarranyi, Ngawiy, Jugu, Manay, Ngaja, Manggay, Gunday, Jimarri,
'Whether you are all: maternal and paternal grandmothers, mothers, aunties, daughters, older sisters, younger sisters, sisters-in-law, cousin sisters or friends,'

Nginyjagama gurrijginggirragi, Nginyjagama linginggirragi,
Wadbinggirragali, yathawarra, mathawarra, wilalawarra, Winyiwarra yarrangi nhingi thangani, nyanangarri nhingi wiyi yani.
'Whatever you are carrying, whatever you are thinking, let’s all come together, to sit, share, talk and listen together.'

Manyjawarrma yarrangi thangani thirrili ngarri.
'Let us make our voices strong.'

Wiyi yani, Galinda yani Thirrili ngarri warawarra.
'All women and girls let’s stand with strength.'


IN APRIL 2017, I became the first woman to be appointed to the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). I have made the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls a priority of my term. It has been over thirty years since the Commonwealth Government invested in a process to listen and respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. In 1986, the landmark Women’s business: report of the Aboriginal Women’s Task Force was published. The report inquired into ‘the involvement of Aboriginal women in land rights, culture, health, housing, education, employment, legal aid, child welfare (with particular reference to adoption and fostering of Aboriginal children)’. Among other findings, the Women’s business report clearly documented the desire of Indigenous women to have agency in their own lives. This year, 2018, the AHRC continues the legacy of this report. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is supporting me and my team to hold a number of engagements around the nation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. We are calling this process Wiyi Yani U Thangani, Women’s Voices. The process will elevate the voices of women and girls across the nation, in order to guide and influence governments to implement policies and practices that provide the conditions for positive change within our communities.

The collective potential of our women and girls is unimaginably powerful. However, too often their voices are silenced and their potential contribution to society squandered by institutional frameworks that are punitive, rather than supportive and empowering, in their approach to justice. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia. According to a report published in 2017 by Human Rights Watch, in 2016 they comprised 34 per cent of women behind bars, but only 2 per cent of the adult female population in Australia.[i] At the same time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are in detention at appallingly high rates. As the final report of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory made clear, no child should be in detention; they should be with the support and care of their family.[ii] For that to be a reality, families, mothers and children must have the societal and institutional supports necessary to remain together. Women need to be in their communities as active participants in governance and decision-making processes, as nurturers, as skilled professionals and as educators, in order to drive positive change for our children’s futures and for generations to come. With this in mind, and as global women’s rights movements – the #metoo campaign, for example – regain a vigorous momentum, the need to hear the voices of women and girls across Australia becomes even more urgent. Gender equity in Australia will only be achieved when equality and justice is achieved for First Nation’s women and girls.

All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have the right to live a life free of violence, to exercise their voice, express their culture, take ownership of initiatives to improve their law and justice outcomes, and live with the full respect and dignity of personhood that gender equality brings.

As a nation we must commit to embedding human rights mechanisms in our policy and legislative frameworks to guarantee these outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.


THE UNITED NATIONS Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted more than ten years ago, on 13 September 2007. It was developed by and for Indigenous peoples across the globe, and is the most far-reaching and comprehensive policy instrument concerning Indigenous peoples that exists. The Declaration is underpinned by four guiding principles: self-determination; participation in decision-making and free, prior and informed consent; respect for and protection of culture; and non-discrimination and equality.

Bringing the Declaration into full effect has been a challenge for many states around the world, but it is obligatory under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that each nation takes key steps towards the universal realisation of basic human rights. Meaningful recognition of these rights has an immense impact on outcomes for individuals and communities. As Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, it is my great hope and ambition to help make the Declaration a useful tool for our mob – for our women and girls, families and communities – so we know what to expect and demand, and how to negotiate and participate in equitable partnerships into the future. Asserting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices is an important process of self-determination and recognising our place as the First Australians within this nation.

The Australian Government formally adopted the Declaration in 2009. Yet the political systems and institutions of this country remain inadequate at providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a voice in the matters that affect our lives. We have consistently called for greater control over our destinies, for the ability to live freely and equally, and for greater recognition of our rights as the First Peoples of this land. We seek to give meaning to the rhetoric of ‘doing things with, not to’ us. We seek an answer to our powerlessness, and a resolution that will deliver substantive equality.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart inspired Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and many other Australians to think big about our sense of Australian nationhood and the potential for Indigenous recognition and inclusion in Australian nation-building. It is with great sadness that we have seen a rejection at this stage of the Referendum Council’s proposal for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. However, we cannot let this dash our hopes. We can and should continue to call for the parliament to work with us. One setback, as great as it may feel, is not the end. There are always new pathways to explore and tread together to get the outcome we want. We might disagree on how to get there, as there is a diverse range of views among First Nations peoples about constitutional recognition. I respect that, but we cannot afford to dismiss what our people have been calling for over many generations. Neither can it be forgotten that we came together at Uluru, at one of the largest and most diverse national gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples I’ve seen in my lifetime. We came together in good faith, we found common ground, and we proposed a way forward.

There are other critical points in the Uluru Statement. It is necessary to draw these points out when considering how to recognise injustice and determine the future of this nation. One important point is the need for structural reform so none of our people are condemned to a life trajectory of intergenerational trauma. Another is establishing a Makarrata Commission to enable the building of just and self-determining relationships with Australian governments, driven by a process of truth-telling. The Makarrata Commission would also ‘supervise the process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations’. There are institutions mandated to fulfil this role in other countries with similar recent histories to our own; for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Canada, and the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand.

Australia has made tentative steps in this direction, with the launch of the Healing Foundation following the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 2008. At the state level, it is particularly pleasing to see the Victorian Government’s commitment to a treaty process. Furthermore, at the local level, treaty-making is already entrenched in Australian public policy and practice through Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs).

On 12 February 2018, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the tenth annual Closing the Gap report to parliament. Although three out of seven targets are on track, a widespread refusal across governments to address the interconnection of all social, economic, cultural and spiritual aspects of Indigenous life means real ground is not being made in closing the health and education gap. A Makarrata Commission would make bringing truth to light its core goal, and in so doing would allow for healing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and for reconciliation between all Australians. Such a process would have greater success in designing and implementing policies that work for our people to guarantee that we close the gap.

In August 2017, after visiting Australia, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, reported on the failure of Australian governments to adequately support and meaningfully engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, to support our right to self-determination and to ensure our full and effective participation in decision-making. She observed that this was a key contributing factor to undermining governments’ ability to deliver on health, education and employment targets, and to aggravating the escalating incarceration and child-removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is critical that government takes on this feedback. There is no doubt in my mind that very significant changes are required if the next chapter of the Closing the Gap strategy is to enjoy more success than the last.

As we look to continue the conversation on constitutional reform, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have made it clear that only substance, not symbolism, will suffice. This issue speaks not only to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples but to the aspirations of all Australians. Together we must ask: what do we hope Australia to be? What nation do we all want to be a part of and how can we put what we want into action?


THE COMPLEX AND entrenched harms that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men experience on a daily basis, and across generations, permeate from a painful past. Indigenous experiences around the world demonstrate very clearly the ongoing impact that colonisation has on people. Reflecting on some of the atrocities that were committed – stories of frontier violence and massacres, like those so powerfully told in the recent Black Day, Sun Rises, Blood Runs exhibition at Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre – the social tragedy facing Indigenous communities within contemporary Australia appears markedly similar to societies recovering from the trauma of war and conflict in other parts of the world. Cycles of intergenerational trauma continue to perpetuate and threaten to undermine the future of ourselves and our children.

It is well known that wellness and educational attainment statistics are generally much lower, and levels of incarceration, suicide and child removal much higher, for Indigenous peoples around the world than for other groups within their national societies. This is the case here in Australia, and in Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Factors contributing to our disadvantage are more than phantoms haunting us. They are very much alive today in the form of everyday and structural racism: the discrimination, marginalisation and substantive inequality faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people due to our ethnicity, the colour of our skin, and to the view, implicit or explicit, that somehow our relative disadvantage in society is because of our own failure or weakness as individuals, or a result of practising our culture. This racism threatens to keep us in a state of disadvantage that means we cannot escape intergenerational trauma. It undermines the potential realisation of our human rights, and the power of our voices in making decisions to bring about large-scale positive impact.

The very survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in this country is testament to our strength and our ability to adapt to conditions. It is evidence of the strength of our culture, which, as I have said many times, must be the bedrock of any solutions to the many challenges we face.


AS INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS have known for millennia, there is no better way to make a statement, to pass on knowledge and responsibility from one generation to the next, than to tell a profound story. I would like to share some stories that demonstrate greatness in women’s struggles for social justice and the rights of their people. These stories are real, and are unfolding in quiet everyday achievements, on public platforms and in international arenas. They highlight the elements of Indigenous strength – language, country, cultural protocols and practices – that can bring about a resurgence in health and wellbeing, and help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma. An absence of these strengths in our everyday lives can result in a serious breakdown in familial and parenting responsibilities from one generation to the next.

Many of the severe harms experienced in community settings are a manifestation of this cycle of abuse. With a breakdown in culture and connections to community and country despair can set in, and an individual and collective sense of hope can be lost. What connects the stories that follow is hope determined through action – the expression of Indigenous identity and culture that engenders hope in others, and the belief that what we present to the world, how we engage with it, can change the world for the better.


THE WOMEN I have looked up to in my life understood, without confusion, their obligation to country, culture and family.

My mother and my grandmother grew me up. They knew every animal, rock and plant, knew how to find water among the tall and endless plains of spikey spinifex and boabs. These lessons took a lifetime to learn and to pass on. My granny, Casey Ross, was also an important role model. She was a very strong cultural woman, a skilled tracker, and a master of six languages. She took a lead in facilitating communication with the non-Indigenous peoples who had come to live in her homeland. In doing so, she built important relationships and understandings, but she never compromised her own identity.

Growing up in Fitzroy Crossing, I watched the old women walk tall and with dignity in a dramatically shifting societal landscape. They carried babies in coolamons under one arm while supporting the week’s shopping on their heads with the other. As a new world marched in, these remarkable women did not relinquish their sense of self, their pride, their identity. It is this strength and pride that I want all Indigenous women and girls, all women across the world, to feel empowered by, so they might be who they want to be without fear or shame.

With these stories in mind, when I look out the window of my apartment onto Pyrmont Bay in Sydney, I see the shores of Barangaroo. Barangaroo, like Tarenorerer from Tasmania, were fierce women from centuries ago who stood on the frontier of colonial history and fought so strongly for the survival of their people. So many women, and many Indigenous warriors, were captured and persecuted for standing strong, for fighting back and protecting their people – their influence and tenacity too often condemned and silenced by colonial authority, lest they spark an insurrection.

These women demonstrated remarkable leadership through resistance. I think they, like others, realised much of what was to come, and knew that resistance would ensure the transference of knowledge and cultural identity so as to secure the rights, health and wellbeing of generations to come. It is this knowledge that engenders a unity in Indigenous sisterhood across the globe, through which we continue to resist and fight for our rights.

It is in this spirit that I watched with awe the incredible Indigenous activism to halt the development of the Keystone XL Pipeline in the US. Barrack Obama rejected a Bill to allow construction of the pipeline in 2015, only for it to be reinstated by President Trump in 2017. Indigenous people across the world felt the pain of those on the ground whose lands were being devastated by the progression of the pipeline. I was moved by the words of Faith Spotted Eagle, a Sioux woman born in South Dakota, which echo my own connection to country. Faith notes that in her language, there ‘is actually no word for “activism”, it is just [a] responsibility of being a “good relative” to the earth and those dwelling on it’.

Similarly, country is where my people need to be able to draw positive emotions, meaning and purpose, self-esteem and resilience. The land provides what we call in the Bunuba language Ngarranggani. Ngarranggani lies at the heart of our culture; it is timeless, and it is all past, present and future. It is our dreaming, our creator, our kinship, morality and ethics. We are of the land, and to care for and protect the land is to nurture and safeguard our families and our future. This intimately entwined relationship of land, language and culture is common to Indigenous peoples across the world. Language is a vehicle to transmit the cultural strengths I’ve referred to, and to heal our communities and reconcile our nation.

Women are so often those who nurture this transmission. Women such as Jean Puketapu, a Māori woman of the Tūhoe iwi. Jean grew up bilingual, speaking her people’s language at home but attending a local school that demanded she speak English. Jean was determined that future generations would retain their language and that this would not stand in the way of their wider education. She was a key driver behind the establishment of the first kōhanga reo (Māori language immersion school). Within a year, with Jean as both a teacher and co-ordinator of this initiative, three hundred other language nests had sprung up. The movement has served to keep Māori language alive and growing at a time when many feared it was dying out.

With this story in mind, I was very pleased to hear that the NSW Government passed new legislation to recognise, revive and protect the languages of the Aboriginal peoples from across that state. It is exciting to see government support for the hard work of Aboriginal community organisations that, like Jean Puketapu, have worked tirelessly to encourage and facilitate learning at the grass roots: within families and communities.


WHILE THERE ARE great initiatives afoot, and stories of past triumphs and survival that punctuate the present, it is unsurprising that many succumb to the trauma around them. Far too many Indigenous people, particularly young people, look to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Communities across the world are faced with this same predicament every day.

One such instance is captured in the true-story film The Honour of All, which takes place in Alkali Lake, a Shuswap Indian Reserve in British Columbia, Canada. As with my own community, this community’s story is complex, and the harmful overconsumption of alcohol a symptom of many underlying traumas. And as with my own community, it took women to stand up and express the need for crisis intervention in the hope of seeing real change.

The film centres around Andy Chelsea, chief of the Alkali Lake Indian Band, and his wife, Phyllis. Phyllis and Andy were heavy drinkers. In June 1972, Phyllis returned from a weekend of partying to pick up her daughter Ivy from her grandmother’s house, only to have Ivy refuse to go home with her until both of her parents stopped drinking. Phyllis made a commitment then and there, and when she got home she poured all the alcohol in the house down the kitchen sink. Over the course of the next decade, she worked with her husband and others in the community to dramatically reduce alcohol consumption. By 1979, 98 per cent of Alkali Lake residents were abstainers. This turnaround was not easily attained, and the ongoing challenge in the face of deeply entrenched trauma is to maintain community strength as a means of support for dealing with pain, instead of alcohol.

In the film, when Phyllis looks her daughter in the eye she sees what it is that I have been trying to emphasise: that in her daughter’s hope for change, there is a better future. Our children are our future. We know that when a child is given the best start in life, that child is much more likely to succeed throughout their life.

We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 9.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care, and that these numbers are only expected to rise.[iii] We know that the care system is often a fast track for our children and young people to enter the criminal justice system. We know that on an average night, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children between the ages of ten and seventeen make up more than half of all children in juvenile detention.[iv] This is a national crisis.

The small town of Bourke in New South Wales is confronting this crisis through justice reinvestment, as was shown on ABC’s Four Corners in September 2016. Justice reinvestment strategies involve a reallocation of spending from prisons to prevention, and the effective co-ordination of intervention programs to reduce levels of offending and re-offending, and the number of people in custody. As far back as October 2012, the Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party had been working with Just Reinvest NSW to address the challenges facing the community’s young people – in particular, their all-too-common interactions with the criminal justice system. The Australian Human Rights Commission was also actively involved from early on through the leadership of my predecessor, Mick Gooda, and National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell, who advocated that government should support the Bourke Aboriginal Community Working Party’s vision.

Kristy Kennedy, a young Aboriginal solicitor of the Barkinji and Narrindgeri nations, grew up in Bourke and has now moved back there from Sydney to take on the role of backbone co-ordinator at Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project. When asked why she came back to Bourke to take the job, Kristy said: ‘I was blown away by what they were trying to achieve. Reducing incarceration rates and working with local people to make effective change through grassroots people. It’s driven by the community. I heard them talking about a co-ordinator’s position and I thought, “I want that job. I want to be part of this.”’[v]

All of these stories demonstrate the drive and determination of women to make sweeping and meaningful change in the lives of their communities, and the broader life of their society. The stories of all Indigenous women from colonial frontiers, and the those of Faith Spotted Eagle, Jean Puketapu, Phyllis Chelsea and Kristy Kennedy, show how one person’s courage and the strength they summon within themselves can become the seed that grows to heal their entire community.

However, each of these stories is more than an individual acting in isolation. They show how Indigenous societal frameworks engender caring and supportive communities that work to bring about change. They also carry a message to government and other stakeholders who want to see change on the ground: learn to see yourselves as partners, and act as partners, in responding effectively to the needs and aspirations of women, their families and their communities.


I HOPE THESE stories become familiar to all people across Australia, but in particular to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. Imagine if we were actively telling these stories, teaching them to our young women today? Stories that are not just reflections on history and present struggles, but that show the strength, resilience and leadership of Indigenous women. Positive role models, ones who look like us and are proud of their culture, heritage and history, help us to believe that we have the right to stand up and be heard. We want all our women and girls to be the best they can be, and to see their aspirations reflected in the achievements of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

This year as we listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls through the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project we will bring truth to light on their lived realities, hopes, achievements and aspirations.

Australia must invest in a strengths-based approach to Indigenous community rebuilding and recovery, and recognise that our female leaders are the greatest agents for change and empowerment in this country. There is much to celebrate in the great work being done by Indigenous women, and by the non-Indigenous women who have made changes within themselves, supported our aspirations and partnered with us in building a better tomorrow. As we begin to unlock our collective potential, I know that there is so much more yet to come.


This is an edited version of the 2017 Narrm Oration, delivered at the University of Melbourne in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission on 16 November 2017.



[i] Walters, A & Longhurst, S 2017, Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment, via Human Rights Law Centre.

[ii] Faith Spotted Eagle, Native Elder Reflects on Keystone XL 2015, viewed 9 November 2017, <>.

[iii] Australian Institute of Family Studies 2017, Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children: CFCA Resource Sheet, Australian Government Publishing Services, Canberra.

[iv] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2016, Youth detention population in Australia 2016, Australian Government Publishing Services, Canberra.

[v] Gibson, G 2016, Stories of Bourke: Past, present and future, Festival of a Thousand Stories, Bourke, NSW.

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