Published by Sydney Criminal Lawyers
Published in The Guardian, 29 June 2019
by Lorena Allam
June Oscar tells of trauma, discrimination, and the link between jailing mothers and child removal
View the Article
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner has used a speech to the UN in Geneva to demand the federal government take action on the rising rates of Aboriginal women in jail.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women represent 2% of Australia’s female population but make up 34% of all women in prison, June Oscar told the Human Rights Council on Friday.
“The root cause is that Indigenous women continue to experience disproportionate levels of trauma and intersecting forms of discrimination which cut across lines of race, gender and socioeconomic status,” Oscar said.
“There is a direct connection between the fact that 80% of Indigenous women in prison are mothers and the rapidly increasing rates of the removal of Indigenous children from families into out-of-home care,” she said.
Oscar called on the government to fully implement the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission report Pathways to Justice.
The report was commissioned in 2016 by the former attorney general George Brandis, who said the prison rates for Aboriginal people were a “national tragedy”.
But the government has made no formal response to the report, which was tabled in parliament almost 18 months ago, despite consistent calls for action. A coalition of more than 35 human rights, justice and community organisations wrote to the government in September last year.
“We cannot let another generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lose their futures, their dignity and – for some – their lives because of inaction by Australian governments,” said the letter signed by Amnesty, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Law Council of Australia, Unicef, national Aboriginal legal and social services, legal academics and others.
The ALRC report recommended a national justice reinvestment body, support for justice reinvestment trials around the country, and national criminal justice targets.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said he is aware this report has been sitting with the government “for some time” and will be giving it his consideration.
“I am also acutely aware of the increasing imprisonment rate of Indigenous women and the need for all governments to do more to address the issues that are driving this,” the minister told Guardian Australia.
“We need to ensure these strategies are community driven and reflect the needs and lived experiences of Indigenous women, their families and communities,” he said.
Speaking in Geneva, June Oscar said: “We must invest in prevention through provision of wrap-around supports to our families, and we must ensure that real alternatives to incarceration become viable options.”
Earlier this week, Oscar launched an exhibition of photographs, Hear Us, See Us, of the many women she has spoken to for the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices, in Oscar’s Bunuba language) project.
The project is the first time in more than 30 years that a formal inquiry into the status of Indigenous women has been held. Oscar and her team have travelled to 50 communities in every state and territory in Australia, speaking with 2,294 women and girls.
The key issues emerging are the need for a voice at a regional and national level “that represents us, on our own terms, and cannot be abolished with the stroke of a pen”, Oscar said at the exhibition launch.
“We need increased investment in health and the social determinants of health. We need to bring an end to punitive welfare compliance regimes which impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people disproportionally.
“We must reform what has become an increasingly punitive justice system that incarcerates our people at 10 times the rate of other Australians, and invest in effective rehabilitative supports.
“We must halt the development of a second stolen generation by supporting Indigenous families and communities to care for themselves and their children, and by ensuring that state governments adhere strictly to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child placement principle.
“Our children must grow up in culture, not in care outside of our communities,” Oscar said.
“We must overhaul the Native Title Act, which in its current form does not provide for a just and equitable native title system.
“All these measures are about giving full effect to our human rights, rights which are enshrined in international treaties which the Australian government has ratified or endorsed.”
The Wiyi Yani u Thangani report is due to be released in September.
“I will be working closely with the Commissioner,” Ken Wyatt said, “with the recommendations from this project informing the changes required across governments to better support Indigenous women and their families.”
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