The following opinion piece by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar appeared on ABC Online on May 24, 2018
Next month, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians will celebrate NAIDOC week — with the theme Because of Her We Can.
It's because of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO that Indigenous women and girls around the country are getting an opportunity to share their strengths, challenges and aspirations through the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women's Voices) project.
It's the first time in 31 years that the Australian Government has funded a national engagement project with First Nations women. Commissioner Oscar gives an insight into the project so far.
Over the past four to five months, my team and I have been travelling across the country to hear directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.
What I'm hearing has made me feel strong and has given me great hope about our future as First Nations people. But I have to admit that I'm also feeling disappointed.
I'm disappointed that some of the issues and challenges that were identified 31 years ago, in the landmark Women's Business report, are still standing in the way of Indigenous women and girls reaching their full potential and living enriching lives.
I am incredibly proud and honoured to be the first woman appointed as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
I come from the Fitzroy Valley in the Kimberley region, of Western Australia, where my Bunuba homelands are. As a young mission kid, I would never have imagined my life journey would lead me to this important role and this significant project.
Wiyi Yani U Thangani, which means Women's Voices in my Bunuba language, is a project that will raise the voices of Indigenous women and girls across the country and unite government, policy and law makers, with our lived experiences.
After listening to more than 500 women so far on our travels through Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, it is clear to me, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have a huge amount to contribute to this nation.
The honesty and the willingness of women to share and take part in the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project has been an incredibly enriching experience.
It has given us profound insights into the grave challenges Indigenous women and girls are facing on a daily basis.
It's also allowing us to celebrate our strength and resilience.
I have heard from women who in the wake of grief and what can seem like insurmountable challenges, continue to hold their families and communities together.
I hear in our girls a boundless potential to be all of who they are. In the same breath as they tell me about their strengths and dreams, they also tell me heart-wrenching stories, of constant bullying from classmates whose insults are heavy with racist sentiments.
They've told me how teachers have refused to believe the racism they've encountered from their peers. As a result, girls have told me that they have questioned their identity, thinking that the problem is because they are Indigenous.
Some of these girls have told me their experiences of the trauma of dislocation, moving between foster families until they are far from their countries. We must nurture and teach our young Indigenous women to be strong in their sense of identity and individual and collective worth.
I'm hearing directly from women and girls who are the real-life stories behind the sky-rocketing statistics of out-of-home care. Young girls have told me, they're feeling like the second Stolen Generation.
I've heard from mothers who have a deep sense of fear about their babies being taken away — by child protection services literally waiting in the birthing suites "like hawks".
And I'm being told that there's a lack of concern and consideration about the child placement principle.
Knowing what we know today, we cannot allow for this to happen again to another generation.
As part of our listening tour, I've visited some of our women in custody. It's a disturbing fact that Indigenous women make up just 2 per cent of Australia's population and yet we are 34 per cent of the women behind bars.
The lack of rehabilitation and training programs on the inside means that the justice system is failing its reform agenda. I have heard first-hand from women on the inside that they are not getting the programs they need.
In listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women around the country, we have a greater sense of the truth of systemic issues, and how they are experienced. And with this truth we will be better able to reform policies and laws to enhance and build the strengths and lives of our women and girls.
There are significant opportunities to grasp here, to ensure that our needs and aspirations and our voices are at the forefront of the Government's agenda — beyond the narrow frame of victimhood and dysfunction. There is an overwhelming call for a change, led by women.
So, for the rest of this year, my team and I will continue making our way around the country and hearing from Indigenous women and girls. I am absolutely determined to make what we say count and I am committed to making sure our voices are heard and responded to, because we all have a right to our voice.
June Oscar AO is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner