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We need safe housing for Aboriginal women and children. And we can’t wait for an election

Author: Fiona Hamilton

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The Barkly region is a hot spot for family violence and child abuse. The community is crying out for a strong response but the resources they have are inadequate, writes @IndigenousX host Fiona Hamilton, a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman of the Trawlwulwuy Nation, a writer, artist, family violence educator and activist. She is a survivor of family violence.

In the aftermath of surviving the worst forms of domestic violence, I packed up my life, my daughter and my courage in 2011 to start work as a community family violence educator in the Northern Territory’s Barkly region, the country’s largest local government area and a hot spot for some of the highest rates of violence and child abuse in Australia. My work and home base was at Tennant Creek, and it was there that I found a model to restore the agency and status of Aboriginal women, an agency that has been so diminished for so long.

The Tennant Creek Women’s Refuge is an eight-bed short-term crisis accommodation service with a full-time counsellor and a small team of gutsy, experienced and big-hearted women working as support staff. In an ideal situation, the Tennant Creek Women’s Refuge could provide accommodation and support for women and children experiencing, escaping or surviving family violence for up to three months. But the services were often in such high demand that stays of two weeks in the setting were considered “long stays”, while stays of a couple of days were the usual. This is often the case for domestic violence services across the country.No more violence logo

Tennant Creek also has little available in terms of public housing, with little new stock being built to alleviate the priority waiting list of seven years. This means many women and children end up immediately living with extended family in already overcrowded, substandard and unsafe housing. If for some reason this kind of accommodation is also not an option, a good many of these women and kids will live in ditches by the service station, or in parks, or at the dam or in small scrub camps outside of town.

Family violence in the Barkly region is everywhere. Child abuse is everywhere. Violence in general is everywhere. It flourishes under conditions where the tolerance to violence has become so high the communities of the Barkly region are often barely functional. The problem is real, and the lives of women, children and men are being lost at a staggering rate.

I saw babies that had been sexually abused. I saw women who had sustained head injuries inflicted by knives and machetes. I constantly saw women with multiple broken limbs, severe head trauma, knife wounds, bottle stabbings and slashings, severe burns, choke-hold injuries, severe haematoma, hair ripped from their heads. I knew women who were killed.

I also saw women who had all their money taken from them. Their medication was taken from them too. Because of this, many women carried their and their children’s belonging with them at all times so as to prevent these things going missing at home. I saw the sexual assault of women and children of all ages, including very senior women.

When women were routinely admitted to the local hospital following serious assaults, often with severe head injuries, they would usually be given a cursory check-over; if required, a bandage would be applied, and then the women were bustled away by police in the back of a police wagon like criminals to be unceremoniously dumped on the doorstep of the Women’s Refuge. At this point, their only belongings were the strips of Panadol given to them at the hospital for pain management.

Tennant Creek Women with Fiona Hamilton at a VAW training course

Fiona Hamilton with Tennant Creek women at a family violence education and training course. Photo: Fiona Hamilton

Aboriginal women and children escaping family violence are not criminals, and we should not be treated as such. Treating us like criminals dehumanises us. This attitude is wrong. It perpetuates the structures and systems that continue to damage us.

For a very long time, the Barkly communities, led by the Women’s Refuge, have been screaming out for a strong response to child abuse, child sexual assault and neglect. The resources the communities have now are inadequate, they don’t match the scale of the task at hand. What is urgently needed is highly specialised trauma services for children who are caught in the belly of the violence. A transitional school is also urgently needed in Tennant Creek for kids who have never attended classes, or kids who are not well adjusted to a school environment. It also needs a diversionary boarding school and youth programs.

I have been recently told the most critical need of all, however, is an affordable and appropriate long-term safe-housing complex for women and children suffering, escaping or surviving past family violence. It’s needed now and it’s long overdue. This is the investment that governments need to make in the future of Aboriginal women and children in the Barkly region. A place where the Aboriginal women of Tennant Creek can heal and restore their agency and their status. A safer place for the children. A hub for the many services required to support Aboriginal women and children through coordinated approaches, and towards a safer future.

What we do not need is more men telling us that we have to wait to have our status and agency restored while their election cycle slowly spins. Our lives need to be secure and our children whole. We need action now.

This story was first published on 13 March 2017 by Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX. Produced with assistance of IndigenousX & Guardian Australia staff.

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