Friday, October 30, 2015

Keynote speech from "Putting Gender on the Agenda" - Alice Springs, 27/10/15

This is a copy of the keynote speech I gave to the Putting Gender on the Agenda conference in Alice Springs this week - an extraordinary first gathering of women; majority Aboriginal; to discuss violence against women in a culturally-appropriate and safe space, free from the scapegoating of the media and govt. This conference was a collaboration between Tangentyere Council, Our Watch and the Alice Springs Women's Shelter. I am publishing my speech on my blog (with ref links where possible) by request from a number of attendees. 

Before I begin today, I would like to take the rare opportunity to acknowledge my ancestors on my traditional homelands. I say rare for although I visit Alice Springs on a regular basis, it’s mainly to see family and have a break from the non-stop bustle which is Melbourne. I additionally travel a lot around this country working and speak on a number of different nations. So it is truly an honour to have the opportunity to speak here, as a proud Arrernte woman, who has ties with this landscape going back several millennia. I’d like to pay respects to my family, to my elders and acknowledge any other elders who are present today. Thank you for having me along today.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Celeste Liddle. My grandparents were Emily and Harold Liddle and my father is Allan Liddle. He married my mother Lindal Tuttleby, a non-Indigenous, working class Collingwood supporter from Melbourne, after they met through mum’s brother Curly, or Leon, Tuttleby who used to play cricket up here with my dad and lived in Alice himself for over 40 years. Hopefully for the people in the room I’m related to but haven’t met yet, that helps place me! I am also the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator, mainly for Daily Life and the Guardian, as well as many speaking gigs across the country. With both my roles, I fell into them. I started working in the union movement because for many years I was working as an Indigenous student support officer at Melbourne University, and while I was at this incredibly white, incredibly privileged and incredibly masculine institution, I realised the Indigenous staff were fighting the same battles the students were so I became involved in the union branch committee. After kicking up a fuss on the picket lines a few times, the NTEU National Office recognised I was a bit of a troublemaker and so asked me to apply for this job. Similarly, I fell into writing and commentary. Three years ago, I started my blog “Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist” and thought utterly no one would read it. Not six weeks later, the editor of Daily Life read a piece on it, asked to republish it. Since then I have pretty much continuously been writing on Indigenous issues, women’s issues, workplace issues, and various combinations of the three.

I say all this to place myself. One of the key topics I write about is violence against women, and I come at this topic from various angles. I come at it as a women’s activist, as an Indigenous activist, as a workers’ activist and as a survivor myself. Why I feel these angles are important, I hope to explain today. It will be a bit of bad news, I’m afraid, though I hope it contributes to the broadening of the discussion around violence against Aboriginal woman and a positive outlook for the future.

Since the beginning of the year, as a way of highlighting the impacts of gendered violence on society, two feminist lobby groups have been keeping count of the victims in order to bring it to the attention of the public. One of these – Destroy the Joint – focuses on all victims of violence against women and while male perpetrators are the vast majority of the count, they include women who are killed by other women arguing that “lateral violence” is a symptom of being a part of a patriarchal society where women enact violence upon each other as a way of gaining power. The other count, run by radical feminist group Real for Women, focuses only on female victims of male violence to highlight specifically the very gendered nature of these crimes. As of today, the tally on Destroy the Joint sits at 75 while the Real for Women tally sits at 67, though I expect that to be 68 due to another death recorded. To take the Destroy the Joint tally as the basis though, this means that thus far this year, we have lost 3 women every fortnight to violence against women. And these are only the ones which make the media and police reports.

My reason for highlighting this is as follows: though I found the tallies by Destroy the Joint and Real for Women incredibly helpful in painting the overall picture and giving the casualties recognition, by about April I had noticed the disproportionate number of Aboriginal women on these lists. The goal of neither of these other counts was to delve into race politics as they were focussed solely on gender, and so with that, drawing on their information, I started the “Counting Dead Aboriginal Women” post on my own blog. Additionally, I am only too aware that our women are too often treated as if they are invisible and also, due to cultural protocol, are not always named in accordance with community wishes, so I wanted to ensure these women had visibility. It has been a heart-wrenching journey.

Just last week, I added the names of two more of our sisters to this list which has brought the official total to 13 Aboriginal women this year, though there are an additional two women whose cultural identities I am still awaiting confirmation of. Therefore, as it stands at this point of the year, Aboriginal women are making up between 17 and 20% of the recorded victims of violence against women this year. We are 3% of the total population of women in this country yet we are represented at a rate nearly 7 times what a population parity rate would be. Sadly, back in April when I started this count, I realised that at the current rate women in this country were dying, Aboriginal women had already achieved population parity rates for the rest of the year and therefore, the outlook was devastating.

So why are Aboriginal women so over-represented amongst the statistics? Time and time again, I hear the reasons given, yet they simply do not tell the full story. I hear that violence is a part of our culture and is therefore seen as reasonable. I am told that addiction and alcohol consumption are the causes. I am told that poverty is the main contributor. I am told isolation and remoteness lead to higher rates. And I am not for one second denying that these things do contribute to the higher rates of violence experienced by our women. Yet they don’t tell the full story. Indeed, only a couple of weeks ago, Miranda Devine, in what was possibly one of the most offensive articles I have read in recent time, pointed her finger at nearly all these factors then blamed “unsuitable women who breed with feckless men” for violence against women. Considering she also identified the heightened rates impoverished Aboriginal women experience violence I was left wondering if she felt we were the most “unsuitable” of all women.

But she was wrong. Why do I say that? Because while poverty, substance abuse, isolation and so forth may all contribute to the heightened rates of violence against women experienced in some communities, white women who are the most financially-privileged in this country are not free from violence. Indeed, only a couple of days before her article came out, a report came out highlighting this very fact. A pilot project running in Sydney’s affluent Eastern suburbs had over 1200 women referred to it since it started at the beginning of the year. Of the 8 women per day referred by police to this service, 2 women were thought to be in immediate risk of being killed. Further to this, only last week the murder of former model and wealthy socialite Maureen Boyce was recorded in the statistics and she is not the only wealthy woman residing in a major city in that list. There does not seem to be a place in this country where domestic and family violence is not afflicting the community and costing the lives of women.

The sad truth of it is that if we were, tomorrow, to solve the issues of poverty, addiction, cultural acceptance, racism and access to services in remote areas, the best we could hope for, as Aboriginal women, would be that the rates of violence experienced by our women reach parity rates. While we’re a country which not only ignores issues of gender but actually celebrates them, we’re not going to solve this. And I say this as an Aboriginal woman who lives in the city, who is financially independent, who is not an alcoholic or addicted to ice, who is highly educated yet who still managed to be a survivor of domestic violence. My life, despite all this comparative privilege, has not been violence-free. 

In my work in the trade union movement, I have found this to be the case amongst privileged, highly educated white women as well. In a report released by the Domestic Violence Clearinghouse a couple of years ago entitled “Family Violence is a Workplace issue” – where a good deal of the respondents were unionised women working in tertiary education – it was reported that 2/3 of women experiencing domestic violence are in paid employment. This was the trigger for the NTEU, and other unions, to develop mandatory domestic violence clauses in workplace collective agreements, so working women who are victims of domestic violence have leave to seek assistance, are not penalised or at risk of losing their jobs if they do so, can request support mechanisms such as private emails and change in phone number to alleviate perpetrator harassment, and can continue to have the means to provide for themselves and their families rather than losing everything and ending up homeless as happens far too often. Women may not take up these entitlements straight away for a number of reasons, but knowing they are there offers a peace of mind which did not exist before.

I agree that we need to address the poverty in our communities. We need to address issues of substance abuse and education. Services which people in the city can simply take for granted are the very things many Northern Territory communities are crying out for and all too often, if funding for these things is given by the government it’s conditional and revolves around Aboriginal women giving up whatever small rights they have. The Intervention was one such example. The threat of forced community closures in Western Australia is another looming example. While I know all too well that some Aboriginal women did indeed support the intervention and felt the BasicsCard was a good thing, it completely troubles me that women, who were already impoverished and in some cases experiencing abuse, had what little autonomy they had taken away from them by the government and were left with no real avenue for recourse. The idea that abused women can be empowered by being disempowered by the state just does not compute with me, and while it may have empowered some women individually, statistics indicate that rates of domestic violence actually rose under the introduction of income management. Australia-wide, we also know Aboriginal women are 38 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence (1), we are at least three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, we are 70 times more likely to be hospitalised for domestic violence brain injury. Simply put, less power is, in my opinion, the last thing most Aboriginal women need.

But I have gotten off track here. I want to return to the notion that we need to stop ignoring gender as the key contributor to violence against women. And I say this with complete respect to our men who are significantly more likely to be victims of violence than white men, who also experience racism, poverty, addiction and isolation. Yet time and time again, in Australian society both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, we see the celebration of gendered violence. We see football players accused of rape and off-field violence being allowed to continue to play. We see men squaring off against each other out the front of nightclubs because one of them looked at the other’s girlfriend and winked and clearly they do this because they feel they own us. We hear about warriors, about thugs, about fighters. We live in a country which while it actively ignores Indigenous history, it also mainly erases women’s stories from the books as well. Masculinity and patriarchy is actively celebrated in Australia, yet it causes harm time and time again to both men and women.

If there is one thing I have heard over and over again though in community circles it’s that we need to help our men because they’re suffering, meanwhile women are expected, against all odds to carry on and support everyone else. When brother Warwick Thornton made that film “Samson and Delilah”, it just encapsulated so much of what I had seen time and time again when it comes to the perceived role of Aboriginal women. Delilah was not only the victim of payback when her grandmother passed away, but she became homeless, started sniffing petrol, was sexually and physically assaulted, was hit by a car and broke her leg, yet despite going through all that, it was her who dragged Samson back out bush, got him off the petrol and nursed him back to a healthy life. All he’d done was sniff too much petrol under a bridge yet he was the one who was seen as needing the healing, as having the bigger problems.

I know it’s just a film, but my point is this: I think a lot of Aboriginal women are starting to turn around and say “who is taking care of us?” Just this weekend, I had the privilege of introducing “Black Panther Woman” – a documentary film about Murri woman Marlene Cummins – to the Girls on Film Festival in Melbourne. And she was pretty much saying enough. In the film, she spoke about how Aboriginal women in the Australia Black Panther movement in the 1970s endured physical and sexual violence by their male partners and other men in the movement without speaking up in order to present a united front against racism. These women felt that they did not have the freedom to speak up against these attacks by because as they were representative of such a marginalised racial group, dividing it by gender just simply was not an option. The impact on these women lasted decades to the point of where Marlene was shown trying to kick her gambling addiction 40 years later. Her bravery in telling her story on screen, particularly when people involved were still alive, was inspiring.

I think, beyond political movements, so many of our women feel this way. That we are so racially and socially marginalised that we have a responsibility to take care of everyone else and keep it all together. But as the stories and the statistics keep on stating, who is taking care of us? Who is taking care of us while we make up 20% of the dead women this year? And this is where I am at. As well as looking at the factors which exacerbate violence against women in our communities, we also need to examine gender and how toxic notions of masculinity make this something society just accepts. We need to take apart both traditional and coloniser notions of ownership of women, of roles of women and see how these contribute to the subjugation of women and; combined with racial oppression; why Aboriginal women in particular are seen as being socially expendable.

Aboriginal women are strong. They are survivors who have borne the brunt not only of all policies of colonisation enacted upon our people in this country, but also the ripple effects and transgenerational trauma for several decades. We have done so under extraordinary adversity yet we are still standing and we are still carrying on. And we are still amazing.

Thank you so much for allowing me this space and I hope that you all have a fantastic and enlightening couple of days. I look forward to hearing from you all.

(1) Note, "38 times" is taken as an average on the recorded statistics, which have differed from 34-45 times more likely. 


  1. Wonderful to see the finger pointed squarely at gender - not blaming women, not blaming poverty, or being black, or uneducated, or grog, but gendered power relations that leave black women vulnerable and expected to put up with everything that's thrown at them.
    One thing that I just can't get my head around is the lack of attention paid to gender in Indigenous Australia (or lets face it, Australia all over) - even in really amazing organisations doing great things for communities, issues of gender are ignored. There's a bit of women's issues, but nothing and no one asking the big questions. I hope this conference is a sign of changing times.

  2. Thank you Celeste for presenting such an eloquent and succinct address.
    In particular I'm always interested to hear Indigenous pOints of view concerning the Howard Government's Intervention and indeed you have deepened my understanding of how it has impacted on women.
    Concerning who looks after and takes care of women - Indigenous, is a really crucial aspect of violence against women. But so far as I can see it is always up to other women to to this. As a white Australian woman who has always thought of myself as a feminist I have seen first hand (teaching in Fitzroy Crossing for two years 1987-88) and read about the strength of your women across Australia.
    I'm very excited to have found your blog and I will like you on FB.
    All the best,