Australia's Indigenous Women

Sep 5, 2021
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While Australia is considered a developed country with a robust economy and a high standard of living, it is not without its social issues. Racial tension and ethnic conflict have plagued Australia for many years. Historically, these clashes have occurred between the Indigenous Populations of the country, formally known as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the migrants from Europe and Asia who have come to dominate the country. In the past decades, successive administrations have attempted to address the issues through the formulation and implementation of pluralistic policies. Such policies have been designed to protect minority groups from discrimination and promote equity by increasing access to social justice, resources, and opportunities. Such efforts, however, have not been enough. To this day, Indigenous Australians still endure inequality and discrimination. But even among this beleaguered group, there are those who suffer more than others. As this term paper will discuss, Australia’s Indigenous women face unique challenges including higher rates of poverty, overall poorer health status, lack of access to education, and higher rates of sexual abuse and violence.

Australia’s Indigenous Peoples

Australia has been home to various populations long before the arrival of colonizers and settlers from other parts of the world, most notably from Europe. According to researchers, it is likely that the island continent has been home to humans for over 50,000 years. Findings from genetic studies conducted in the previous years suggest that Indigenous Australians share common ancestors who migrated to Australia from Africa more than 70,000 years ago following advancements in human evolution (Tobler et al., 2017). It is worth noting, however, that Aboriginal Australians do not comprise a single cultural group; rather, Indigenous Australians comprise over 250 distinct language groups. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], Indigenous Australians represent 3.3% of the Australian population. The latest available census places the number at 798,400, 91% of whom identify as Aboriginal while 5% identify as Torres Strait Islander; 4% identify as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ABS, 2016).

Despite being residents of Australia for thousands of years, Indigenous Australians are among the most underserved populations in the country. Hundreds of years of colonization have decimated their numbers. Researchers estimate that there were around 750,000 to 1.2 million Aboriginal Australians in 1788 when Great Britain began colonization. Epidemics and massacres as well as low quality of life prevented them from increasing in number. Furthermore, the implementation of forced assimilation has had a destructive effect on their culture (Blakemore, 2019).

Issues Confronting Indigenous Women

While Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Australia, Indigenous women are even more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. A variety of issues face these women, among which are high rates of poverty and unemployment. According to a report by the Parliament of Australia, an estimated 30% of Indigenous households live below the poverty line. This percentage accounts for around 120,000 people (2004). By contrast, the poverty rate among non-Indigenous Australians is 13.6% (Davidson et al., 2020). But while poverty is disproportionately higher among Indigenous populations, Indigenous women endure greater setbacks. For one, Indigenous women earn significantly less than men as manifested by a gender pay gap. According to a report published by the Australian National University, Indigenous women earn a weekly median income of $431 in 2016, whereas Indigenous men earn $453 (Markham and Biddle, 2018). The discrepancy is more glaring when compared to non-Indigenous men and women, who earn $1,804.20 and $1,562, respectively (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2021).

The economic discrepancy does not end in the amount earned. Studies also show that Indigenous women experience lower rates of employment than men. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019), only around 44% of Indigenous women are employed, as compared to around 48% of Indigenous men. Overall, the unemployment rate among Aboriginal Australians is 18.4%, which is almost thrice as high as the rate among non-Indigenous Australians at 6.8% (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2018). Low wages and lack of employment, in turn, put Indigenous women at risk for financial and economic difficulties. Much lower earnings mean that women are less likely to make purchases or expenditures that contribute to their wellbeing including health-related ones.

Another problem faced by Indigenous women is the lack of access to healthcare. Several indicators show that Indigenous women are not getting the same level of medical attention received by non-Indigenous women. For one, this group suffers from much higher rates of infant mortality. According to Oxfam Australia, infant mortality among Indigenous women is twice the rate among non-Indigenous women. This number climbs to thrice the rate in remote areas. Moreover, stillbirths are also more common among Indigenous women, with rates higher by 60% than non-Indigenous women (Oxfam Australia, 2019).

Apart from these problems, Indigenous women also have higher rates of teenage pregnancy. Australia’s Department of Health reports that the rate of adolescent birth among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is at 17%, which is staggeringly higher than the 2% rate in non-Indigenous adolescents. These young mothers are also more likely to give birth to infants with lower birth weight. The Department of Health emphasizes that the poor health of these infants is more from modifiable factors such as socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, and nutritional status than from non-modifiable factors like age (2019). These numbers serve as clear evidence that Indigenous women are not getting healthcare services at optimal levels. In particular, young Indigenous women are likely not receiving information on adolescent sexuality compared to their non-Indigenous peers. The disparity in access to healthcare also manifests in other ways. A study by Krusz et al. (2019) showed that Indigenous women also have limited access to information on menstrual health and hygiene as well as menstrual products. Various factors including poverty, stigma, and distance contribute to these problems. Meanwhile, Stark and Hope (2007) found that the rate of sexually transmitted diseases or STDs is higher among aboriginal women on account of difficulty accessing healthcare.

Education is also another issue where Indigenous women face more challenges. Studies show that Aboriginal women and girls are less likely to attend school than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Some of the factors identified as preventing girls and women from going to school include lack of economic or financial capacity and the general inaccessibility of schools, especially in remote areas (Keddie, 2014). The inability of females to acquire basic and higher education, in turn, has significant consequences for their future. Failure to acquire an education means that young women will have lower chances of landing gainful employment, thus furthering the cycle of disadvantage on the individual, family, and community levels.

Finally, Indigenous women are also confronted by higher rates of sexual abuse and violence. Scholars have pointed out that violence against Indigenous women is deeply rooted in the country’s history of colonization. For over two centuries, Indigenous women were subjected to gendered violence in the hands of colonial masters. Women were raped, murdered, and sexually abused during this long period. While changes had certainly taken place, the numbers are still deeply disturbing. For one, Indigenous women are 32 times more likely to suffer from injuries requiring hospitalization due to domestic violence than non-Indigenous women. Furthermore, Indigenous women are five times more likely to die from homicide than their non-Indigenous peers (Carlson, 2021). Sexual abuse is also higher among this group. Studies indicate that Indigenous children carry a risk of sexual assault twice higher than non-Indigenous children (McCalman et al., 2014). But despite the higher rates of sexual abuse and violence, researchers found that agencies intended to address sexual abuse and violence among Indigenous populations are underutilized. This points to the lack of reporting of crime against women and children in Indigenous communities, thus signifying the need for reform to address this issue comprehensively (McCalman et al., 2014).

Conclusion

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia are the oldest inhabitants in the country. But despite this, they are also the most disadvantaged. The experience of this group during the colonial period was marked by poverty, disenfranchisement, violence, deprivation of property, and loss of culture. While changes have been and are being initiated, progress is slow. In particular, half of this population continues to endure significant challenges: women face a myriad of issues including low wages and unemployment, high rates of violence, and lack of access to healthcare and education. Given these issues, it is the duty of both the government and the Australian public that Indigenous Australians finally achieve equitable progress and social justice.


References

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2018, August 31). Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples/estimates-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-australians/latest-release

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019, September 11). Australia’s welfare 2019. Australian Government. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/australias-welfare

Blakemore, E. (2019, February 1). Aboriginal Australians. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/aboriginal-australians

Carlson, B. (2021, April 16). No public outrage, no vigils: Australia’s silence at violence against Indigenous women. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/no-public-outrage-no-vigils-australias-silence-at-violence-against-indigenous-women-158875

Davidson, P., Saunders, P., Bradbury, B. and Wong, M. (2020). Poverty in Australia 2020: Part 1, Overview. ACOSS/UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership Report No. 3, Sydney: ACOSS.

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. (2018). Chapter four: Employment. Australian Government. https://www.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/reports/closing-the-gap-2018/employment.html

Keddie, A. (2014). Indigenous girls, social justice and schooling: Addressing issues and of disadvantage. In: Wyn J., Cahill H. (eds) Handbook of Children and Youth Studies. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-4451-96-3_44-1

Krusz, E., Hall, N., Barrington, D. J., Creamer, S., Anders, W., King, M., Martin, H., and Hennegan, J. (2019). Menstrual health and hygiene among Indigenous Australian girls and women: barriers and opportunities. BMC Women’s Health, 19(146). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-019-0846-7

Markham, F. and Biddle, N. (2018). Income, poverty and inequality. https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/145053

McCalman, H., Bridge, F., Whiteside, M., Bainbridge, R., Tsey, K., and Jongen, C. (2014). SAGE Open, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244013518931

Oxfam Australia. (2019, January). The inequality that divides us: Australian inequality fact sheet January 2019. https://media.oxfam.org.au/2019/01/inequality-divides-us/

Parliament of Australia. (2004). Chapter 13: Indigenous Australians. https://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/senate/community_affairs/completed_inquiries/2002-04/poverty/report/c13

Stark, A. M. and Hope, A. (2007). Aboriginal women's stories of sexually transmissible infection transmission and condom use in remote central Australia. Sex Health, 4(4), 237-242. DOI: 10.1071/sh07009

Tobler, R., Rohrlach, A., Soubrier, J., Bover, P., Llamas, B., Tuke, J., Bean, N., Abdullah-Highfold, A., Agius, S., O’Donoghue, A., O’Loughlin, I., Sutton, P., Zilio, F., Walshe, K., Williams, A. N., Turney, C. S. M., Williams, M., Richards, S. M., Mitchell, R. J….Cooper, A. (2017). Aboriginal mitogenomes reveal 50,000 years of regionalism in Australia. Nature, 544, 180-184. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature21416

Workplace Gender Equality Agency. (2021, February 26). Australia’s gender pay gap statistics 2021. Australian Government. https://www.wgea.gov.au/publications/australias-gender-pay-gap-statistics

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