Violence Pervasive in Australia's Aboriginal Community

A recent media report detailed an extraordinary level of violence in the aboriginal communities of central Australia, particularly against women and children. Madeleine Brand speaks with Suzanne Smith, a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, about what's behind the violence.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams. In a few minutes we'll meet some of the folks who work at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

BRAND: But first, this week Australia's Prime Minister John Howard visited the U.S. Back home Australians were hearing about shocking violence against women and children in the aboriginal communities there. A prosecutor's report documenting 15 years of abuses was leaked to reporter Suzanne Smith of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

I spoke with Smith earlier. She told me that the abuses tell a horrific story of what happens when a segment of society is neglected. And a warning to listeners, this story contains some disturbing details.

Ms. SUZANNE SMITH (Reporter, Australian Broadcasting Corporation): These and remote communities. There are only eight police stations in those 40 communities. So what we have is a situation in Australia, which is a white man country, of a whole group of people that have been left behind.

They're out of sight and out of mind. They were the (unintelligible) generation throughout the century, early in the last century. If you had a child that was called a half cast it was taken away from you. You know, it's the same sort of policies indigenous people have faced all around the world.

And what's happened is they've been neglected by governments for so long and this has been going on without any police.

BRAND: And according to Smith complicating the situation is aboriginal tribal law.

Ms. SMITH: Women will not notify the police. They will not give evidence in court. And then some men who are perpetrators of this shocking violence, such as baby rape, murder of 5-year-old, the kidnapping and enslavement of 10-year-old aboriginal women hide behind indigenous culture and say, well, she was my promised wife.

There's cases of 55-year-old traditional men saying that I had a 10-year-old promised wife and therefore it was okay to sexually assault her.

BRAND: Suzanne, the report also talks about something called tragedy fatigue. What is that all about?

Ms. SMITH: When a family tries to get involved in a court case they can't really stay focused on it because as soon as they get to the court case there's another shocking tragedy that happens in their family. A teenager may suicide, you know, there might be a car accident. Their lives are constantly overtaken by horror.

What happens is indigenous people, therefore, see all these things ephemerally and they don't stand up and speak out and stay focused on a particular murder or a particular rape that's happening.

But the other really concerning issue is that, what's happening is the children are becoming inured to violence. They're growing up in violence. And what's happening, we've had a string of very young women, you know, in their early 20s, who've been charged with murder for murdering their boyfriends.

BRAND: Well, so the young women are being prosecuted, what's happening to the men? Are they being prosecuted?

Ms. SMITH: There's no insufficient numbers and there's the average sentences for homicide or murder are seven to nine years for indigenous men and they plea that I was either drunk on petrol or they plea that it was indigenous customary law and that that lessens the sentences. And she's saying we've got to stop that.

BRAND: Well, I wonder also who's looking out for these children when there abuses. Is there some sort of state agency that can come in and take them away and put them in foster care?

Ms. SMITH: It's not a simple issue of just saying take the children away because these are very traditional aboriginal children and who takes them. What families take them and where do they go? And from the poverty that I have seen in that area it is a shocking, shocking scandal for a country like Australia that we have such poverty. And it's not as if an aboriginal man can go down the street in some of these communities and get a job. There isn't any.

BRAND: This has caused outrage in your country. Is the government promising big changes?

Ms. SMITH: In Australia, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Mal Brough is promising big things. But many people are skeptical about whether he'll deliver. And there's a real outcry amongst particularly women across the country saying don't make this a four day story and then have the TV news all over it and then forget about it.

So there is an incredible amount of pressure on Mal Brough now to actually come up with some solutions. And I think your sort of skepticism I'm sensing Madeleine is warranted, because, you know, we've had shocking stories like this before and these kids are still living in these conditions.

BRAND: Suzanne Smith, thank you very much.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you Madeleine and I really-we appreciate you highlighting this issue. Thank you very much.

BRAND: Suzanne Smith is a senior reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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BRAND: There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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