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Appendix B: Key concepts

In a report such as this, it is important to define what is meant by the terms Indigenous community and violence.

Indigenous community

Many government inquiries into Indigenous violence have talked about the Indigenous community in general, without seeking to clarify this term. In reality, there are a multitude of different communities, ranging from:

  • remote settlements far removed from non-Indigenous townships, such as those in the APY Lands, Arnhem Land, the Kimberley or Cape York;
  • rurally-based communities located in close proximity to, but still spatially separate from, non-Indigenous townships (such as Point Pearce and Raukkan in South Australia). Many of these are artificial constructs that began their existence as government reserves or mission settlements;
  • town camps of predominantly transient dwellers situated on the edges of centres such as Alice Springs; and
  • integrated urbanised groups living within mainstream regional centres and capital cities.

Discussions of violence in Indigenous communities tend to focus on spatially separate remote or semi-remote communities. In these situations, the impact of violence is likely to be particularly damaging because both the perpetrators and victims of such behaviour generally come from within the community and are often related through complex kin networks. However, the situation may be quite different in major cities where:

  • there are often a number of different Indigenous groups or social networks, defined according to the part of the state from which the members originated or the kinship groups to which they belong;
  • the members of these networks are likely to be scattered across the suburbs, thereby reducing the intensity and frequency of interaction between them; and
  • the 'pool' of potential victims is larger, with Indigenous persons having a greater opportunity to offend against non-Indigenous people because of the co location of the two groups.

Violent offending by Indigenous persons in these highly urbanised settings may be more diffuse and therefore less detrimental to the cohesiveness and viability of the offender's community than in more isolated settlements. The situational risk factors for violence may also be different, as will access to police and other resources, all of which may produce variations in both the onset and re-occurrence of violent behaviour.

While this report set out to present information on differences in the level and nature of Indigenous violence depending on the type of community involved, the lack of spatially relevant data made this task very difficult and highlights the need for better data collection and analysis in this area.

Defining violence

In broad terms, Indigenous violence can be defined as:

an issue focused around a wide range of physical, emotional, sexual, social, spiritual, cultural, psychological and economic abuses that occur within families, intimate relationships, extended families, kinship networks and communities (Victorian Indigenous Family Violence Task Force 2003: 123).

Memmott & National Crime Prevention (2001) identified 12 forms of violence in Indigenous communities. In turn, these (together with others not nominated by Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001) may be grouped into four broad categories, depending on whether the defining criteria is the nature of the behaviour itself, the characteristics of the victim, the contextual framework within which the violence occurs or whether the violence is intra- or inter-racial.

Violence defined by the type of behaviour involved

These forms are largely self-explanatory and include:

  • physical violence, notably homicide and assault;
  • sexual violence, including rape, indecent assault and unlawful sexual intercourse/carnal knowledge;
  • emotional violence;
  • psychological violence; and
  • economic abuse, which may include the withdrawal or extraction of money or goods as a way of hurting somebody (Bolger 1991: 6) or when 'welfare payments are used by the recipient to buy alcohol instead of food, leaving other family members without basic resources' (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001: 49).

Suicide and self-harm could also be included here, because they involve an act of physical violence, albeit directed against the self.

Violence defined by the characteristics of the victim

The most frequently recognised forms of violence defined according to the characteristics of the victim are domestic violence, family violence, child abuse and elder abuse.

  • domestic and family violence—although domestic violence has long been recognised as a distinct form of abuse in non-Indigenous settings, there has been much discussion in the literature about the appropriateness of applying this concept to Indigenous communities. It usually refers to those situations where the victim is either a spouse or defacto and, as such, has a very narrow and often legislatively constrained meaning. Within Indigenous communities it may be more appropriate to use the generic term of 'family' violence, defined as any violence that 'occurs between people who are known to each other by way of familial or other domestic relationships, past or present' (MacDonald cited in Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002: 7). This broader term more accurately reflects the complex network of family and kinship ties that underpin Indigenous relationships and, according to a number of reports (eg see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000; Gordon, Hallahan & Henry 2002), is the term now preferred by Indigenous people themselves to refer to violence that occurs within the domestic setting;
  • child abuse—within Indigenous communities, this refers to 'any form of action that results in the wellbeing of the child being threatened or leading to actual harm… includ[ing] practices leading to the denial of Aboriginality of children' (SNAICC 1996: 4). It covers a range of behaviours including:
  • emotional and physical abuse;
  • sexual abuse, involving 'activities ranging from exposing the child to sexually explicit materials or behaviours, taking visual images of the child for pornographic purposes, touching, fondling and/or masturbation of the child, having the child touch, fondle or masturbate the abuser, oral sex performed by the child or on the child by the abuser and anal or vaginal penetration of the child' (Tomison 1995: 2);
  • lack of effective parenting or neglect, including 'any serious omissions or commissions by a person having the care of the child which, within the boundaries of cultural tradition, constitute a failure to provide conditions that are essential for the healthy physical and emotional development of a child' (Tomison & Poole 2000: 10);
  • withdrawal of support;
  • failure to provide adequate medical care; and
  • cultural deprivation.

Of these, child sexual abuse has received considerable publicity in recent years. However, achieving consensus about what constitutes child sexual abuse within Indigenous communities is not straightforward. While certain behaviours (such as rape) clearly constitute criminal acts and are regarded as such by both Australian law and by Indigenous people, some ambiguity exists in relation to two forms of sexual behaviour involving adolescents under the age of 16 years—'consensual' sex between individuals and 'transactional' sex, where young persons (usually girls) engage in sexual acts, often with older men, for the purpose of obtaining petrol or marijuana, or money with which to purchase these items. Such behaviours, particularly those involving consensual sex, are not always viewed as unlawful by the young 'victims' themselves, their families, other community members and, at times, by non-Indigenous service providers. Yet under Australian law, may (depending on the jurisdiction) constitute forms of child abuse and may lead to charges of unlawful sexual intercourse or carnal knowledge. Some inquiries into Indigenous child sexual abuse (eg see Mullighan 2008) also dispute the extent to which such behaviours are truly consensual. They argue instead, that while many of the young girls may not overtly refuse to participate in a sexual act, they do so because they feel they had no choice. As the Mullighan Inquiry (2008: 63) noted 'Anungu children…lack communication skills, emotional maturity and awareness of the law to negotiate sexual relations and in reality consent to them'. Hence, in its view, all such incidents should be regarded as non-consensual child sexual abuse.

  • elder abuse—while elder abuse could be viewed as a subset of family violence (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000), little is currently known about its nature and extent within Indigenous communities. This suggests that it should be treated as a separate category at this stage. Elder abuse has been defined as 'any act occurring within a relationship where there is an implication of trust which results in harm to an older person' and was used in a preliminary study conducted in Western Australia which found that:
  • while there was some indication of sexual and physical abuse of older people, such instances were relatively infrequent;
  • instead, Indigenous elder abuse primarily involved financial abuse and 'demand sharing', whereby younger individuals take advantage of kinship-based obligations to force their older relatives to share resources such as welfare payments;
  • perpetrators were often members of the victim's immediate family, particularly grandchildren or their grandchildren's friends; and
  • in the metropolitan area, elderly Indigenous people congregating in city parks were 'easy targets for some to stand over and rob people for monies' especially if the victim was under the influence of alcohol (Western Australia Office of the Public Advocate 2005: 26).

An inquiry into Indigenous violence in Cape York also observed that, while abuse of older people in that region was a 'relatively recent phenomenon', it nevertheless existed and was 'related to the loss of traditional cultures and values, including respect for elders' (Fitzgerald 2001: 93–94). Similarly, Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000) noted instances of emotional and physical abuse directed against older people, particularly older women, by substance-dependent family members. Often the aim was to extract money but it could also include sexual assault.

However, the generic definition cited above and used in the Western Australian study, may not be appropriate for Indigenous people or communities where the term 'elder' is reflective of important cultural roles that are not necessarily linked to the person's age. If the definition does require the specification of an age range, this may need to be different for Indigenous groups, given their substantially shorter life expectancy compared with non-Indigenous Australians (SCRGSP 2007).

Violence defined by the circumstances in which it occurs

Five types of violence identified in Indigenous communities fit within this category:

  • one-on-one adult fighting—this generally takes place between members of the same gender (usually, but not always, males). In traditional society, it occurred in a highly structured manner but has now become far less regimented and is often fuelled by alcohol (Memmott & National Crime Prevention 2001);
  • inter-group violence—this ranges from violence between different kin groups in remote communities to forms of gang violence involving predominantly young Indigenous males in urban settings;
  • cyclic or intergenerational violence—this term covers several different scenarios. At one level, it may refer to the commission by the same adult of acts of violence against successive generations of individuals, including their children and grandchildren (Ella-Duncan et al. 2006: 61). However, it is more commonly applied to violence that is transmitted from one generation to another 'through social and cultural processes' (National Crime Prevention 1999a: 8). This may stem from the 'cumulative, intergenerational impacts of trauma on trauma on trauma' (Atkinson 1996: 7), whereby individuals who experience or witness violence and other life stressors as children subsequently respond to such trauma by becoming perpetrators of violence. Alternatively, some commentators have argued that it is due to the 'normalisation' of violence in a community. Under this scenario, because of its pervasive nature, violence may become internalised by each successive generation as an inherent part of the culture or lifestyle. It thus acquires certain legitimacy as a method of resolving disputes and may even be perceived, particularly among young males, as something akin to a rite of passage. However, this notion of 'normalised' violence has been disputed by various Indigenous leaders who argue that in some communities, factors such as the lack of an effective police response or intervention programs mean that residents are powerless to take action against violent perpetrators. However, this lack of action should not, in their view, be interpreted as an 'acceptance' of such violence;
  • dysfunctional community syndrome—this is characterised by the simultaneous occurrence within the one community of many different types of violence, together with a range of socioeconomic, health and educational disadvantages; and
  • sequential violence—this refers to situations where a particular incident involving a single perpetrator and victim triggers a sequence of retaliatory events that may ultimately spread to encompass a large number of community members. The inquiry into child abuse in the APY Lands, for example, described the considerable community unrest that occurred following a report to police that a young girl had been sexually assaulted. The victim's father apparently went to the home of the perpetrator's family and assaulted the perpetrator and his sister. In turn, when the perpetrator was released back into the community on bail, he assaulted the victim's sister. The episode culminated in a brawl involving more than 100 people (Mullighan 2008). The same inquiry also identified cases where the young victim herself was assaulted by members of her own family as punishment for her involvement in what they perceived to be a 'wrong skin' sexual relationship (Mullighan 2008). These types of sequential violence, which motivated by the concept of 'payback', have the potential to be more damaging to the community than one-off incidents, because of the number of people who ultimately become involved and the long term unrest and tension which they generate.

Interracial violence

The forms of violence identified above operate predominantly at an intra-community level where there is a strong probability that both the offender and victim will be Indigenous. There are, however, other forms of violence that are interracial, including:

  • individual acts of aggression by Indigenous perpetrators against non-Indigenous victims and vice versa;
  • oppositional violence that constitutes part of a pattern of resistance by Indigenous people against the dominant European culture (Hunter 1991a);
  • racially-motivated violence (Cunneen 1990: 1997);
  • systemic or structural violence. This may be historical, such as the massacres perpetrated by European settlers, the subsequent resettlement of Indigenous people on segregated reserves and the forced removal of Indigenous children from their parents. It may also be contemporary, such as the documented examples of police violence against Indigenous offenders (Cunneen 1990: 1997); and
  • some writers also refer to psycho-social domination and cultural/spiritual genocide by the dominant culture and argue that this constitutes 'the greatest violence of all' (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence & Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development 2000: 67).

Overall, these broad categories of violence are by no means mutually exclusive. An incident of interpersonal violence may include any combination of physical assault, sexual assault, emotional abuse and psychological abuse. A fist fight in the street, while technically constituting assaultive behaviour, may involve one-on-one adult fighting or it may escalate to inter-group fighting, particularly if the initial protagonists' kin become involved. Where such escalation occurs, then violence becomes sequential. This complex interweaving of different types of violence, when combined with other forms of dysfunctional behaviour (such as alcohol and illicit drug abuse) that occur within a context of social and economic disadvantage all go to make up a dysfunctional community.

Last updated
3 November 2017