Visiting health expert’s plea to beat abuse

Lowitja Institute CEO Romlie Mokak and Gunn Heatta.

The global community, including the World Health Organisation, needs to get to the bottom of the domestic violence scourge affecting many of the world’s Indigenous communities, according to a visiting Norwegian mental health and substance use expert.

Gunn Heatta, a Sami woman descended from Norway’s traditional reindeer herders, called for more research into the cause of violence.

“I think violence from known perpetrators whether it’s physical, psychological or sexual, I think that is quite common among Aboriginals (around the world). In that way I think perhaps we have some of the same problems,” she said.

“The first thing we should do is to research more, to go down into the problem and try to find out why is this happening in our communities and then of course share best practice of how are we going to change this.”

Ms Heatta, who was in Melbourne for a major Indigenous health conference, said health authorities and governments should play a role but Indigenous communities also needed to take responsibility.

She said domestic and family violence were emerging as key problems in Norway. In many cases it was hidden because the subject was taboo.

Ms Heatta said a study last year found about 50 per cent of Sami women had experienced violence from someone they knew, compared to 30 percent in the general population. She said it was a problem mirrored in other Indigenous communities around the world.

“We have been thinking in Norway that the Norwegian Government should look at this problem and help us to get money and people to work with this because it’s quite demanding…,” she said.

“Still I think we have ourself. We have to work with this ourselves, the Sami people, we have to say we don’t want to have these kind of societies. We don’t want these kind of problems in our society so we have to do something first.”

Ms Heatta, director of the Sami Norwegian Advisory Unit on Mental Health and Substance Use, said in one small Norwegian community the sexual abuse of girls and boys through generations was starting to come to light and action taken to deal with the problem.

She said no research had been done on how it became entrenched in the community, but the area had a history of disquiet between the Sami community and the Norwegians.

“I think one thing it could be, when you feel that the majority are looking down at you all the time, well they don’t trust each other, in one way you go together, you stay together, you don’t let anyone in from the outside,” she said.

“Everything is staying inside in your own community and then you can get these bad cultures that no one is correcting. No one dares to talk about it because you don’t want the majority or someone else to find out about this. When its going in generations you start to think this is the normal thing.”

Ms Heatta said her organisation had been working with individuals who had experienced abuse who were now coming forward and also putting extra therapists into the area.

She said the Sami population had escaped some of the other problems of other Indigenous communities, such as substance abuse.

A 2005 study found there was less substance use among the Sami population than the general population.

However, Ms Heatta said she believed this had changed for the worse in recent years.

The Sami people were also at less risk of suicide than other Indigenous people such as those from Greenland and Alaska, but the rate of suicide was still greater than for the general Norwegian population.

Ms Heatta said Scandinavian countries provided strong education systems.

“We have good opportunities to study, to get more knowledge,” she said.

“Of course the Scandinavian countries are welfare states and one of the norms of the welfare states is you should be exactly the same.

“In one way that is good, but it is also not good when you are a minority because we don’t want to be equal. We want to have an equal result but not to be Norwegians or Swedes.”

Ms Heatta is part of an advisory unit set up to provide health services to a population which is facing the extinction of its languages and culture.

The unit uses special treatments for Sami patients, including wilderness therapy.

Indigenous health experts from around the world gathered in Melbourne for the Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference.

The event was organised by the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research body, to bring together Indigenous people from across the globe.

Elders welcomed delegates and guests with a traditional ceremony on Monday.

The program included keynote speeches from experts including University of New South Wales Professor Megan Davis; Chief Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer and former MP, from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada; Maori lawyer and Treaty expert Moana Jackson from New Zealand’s Te Wānanga o Raukawa; and Professor Karina Walters, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, from the University of Washington.

Wendy Caccetta

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