Claudia Nussbaumer continues her 8-part series exploring gender relations in indigenous communities, this week turning her attention to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of Australia.



Australia’s Indigenous population is divided into two distinct cultural groups – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, within this group – as with most Indigenous communities – is a great diversity. This diversity is exemplified by the over 250 different language groups spread across the nation. Further to this, gender relations and roles are varied and subject to change in each community. When investigating indigenous gender relations from literature dated prior to 1970, it is clear that a distinct bias informed the work of European scientists and the way in which they conducted their studies, often only focusing on the male population.


Unfortunately, there are few records from the period before colonisation, as Aboriginal history was passed on verbally from one generation to another and was imperiled by missionary activity and government policies of assimilation. Scientists have tried to re-evaluate the position of Australian Indigenous women by comparing data from similar evolutionary level societies and filtering any empirically obtained information through the universal theories of sexual selection, maternal instincts and physical differences of the sexes. The absence of direct conclusions should be taken into account when looking at an analysis of the social position of Aboriginal women.


The insubstantial data that is available on Aboriginal communities tells us that female and male children have long been raised equally. Children were nurtured and protected by their parents, mainly their mother, until reaching adulthood. The mother was responsible for providing food, security and early education. As children grew up, they were encouraged to play games according to their gender. There is evidence for sex-specific religious ceremonies. The role of women in pre-colonial times was a contradiction. On the one hand, they held a vital role in their society and had responsibility for essential tasks, yet on the other side, there was abuse and repression of women’s choices when it came to marriage and choosing their role in the community.


In post-colonial times and to this day, there is a rise in gender inequality and with that, domestic violence. This stems largely from contemporary issues and marginalisation that Indigenous Australians face. One area of which is anglicisation, the repression of Indigenous Identity through missionary work and forced removal of Indigenous children- ‘the Stolen Generations.’ These processes took their toll on the Indigenous population as one might imagine. Generations of repression and discrimination at the hands of colonial overlords have continued to this day, resulting in a poor quality of life for modern-day indigenous communities in Australia: affecting housing, education, employment, and health.


The 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, found that 1 in 4 Indigenous Australians, aged 15 years or over, reported being a victim of physical or threatening violence in the twelve months prior to the survey. The age-standardised rate for being a victim of physical or threatening violence among the Indigenous population was over twice the rate of the non-Indigenous population.



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