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‘First Nations women in politics is the last glass ceiling’

Guest Author -

As we approach International Women's Day on March 8, National Indigenous Times is spotlighting the stories of strong, powerful Blak women across the country.

Strong and staunch First Nations women of the Greens, Senator Lidia Thorpe of Victoria and Lead Senate candidate Dorinda Cox of Western Australia, are strong-willed and passionate about issues affecting their people.

Here they discuss First Nations women's participation in political and public decision-making in Australia.

This year's International Women's Day theme is 'Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world'.

It comes at a time when many of us are focused on improving women's full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

For First Nations women, the challenges to full participation in public life in this country are great.

There is a long history of First Nations women in Australia attempting to participate in public and political decision-making. In 1974, Hyacinth Tungutalum was the first First Nations woman elected to a State or Territory Parliament.

Since then, there has been a long list of esteemed First Nations female parliamentarians in this country, all of them coming under intense scrutiny by the media, First Nations people, and the broader public.

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women's multifaceted theme aims to highlight the need for us to further unpack and implement strategies to address barriers to leadership, and for First Nations women, what is required for our full participation in both the political and public decision-making processes.

It is the core of our challenge as First Nations communities to find more positive ways of empowering, encouraging and propelling our women and girls' voices into more political and public spaces.

Part of this challenge also means working together to dismantle our existing system of government and to rebuild this through a First Nations woman's perspective.

Often referred to as the backbone of our communities, we need more self-determination and cultural governance to embed our ways of working for our nations to thrive.

Yet the barriers to First Nations women's participation in politics are great. Recent research suggests that women in politics are two to three times more likely to be targets of abuse, particularly online.

Even more challenging still, being a First Nations activist with a political and public profile sees us trolled, abused and threatened more than any other race.

As First Nations women, not only does targeting and harassment increase, but some of these more common narratives are highly personalised and often based on attacking our appearance and denigrating our intelligence.

These real examples of threats to personal safety present one of the largest barriers to increasing the participation of First Nations women in public life, with the staggering statistic of violence against First Nations women already being 35 times more likely than other women.

This situation is further complicated through the legacy of intergenerational trauma, resulting in internalised oppression of our First Nations people.

We then must deal with community-level politics played out through laterally violent attacks on our integrity and identity.

We have both been falsely accused through personalised and slanderous attacks which attempt to distract us from important political activism â€" challenging the public decision-making processes which have governed our people's lives and working towards collective healing and justice for First Nations people, in particular our women.

Lidia Thorpe at an Invasion Day rally. Photo supplied.

As daughters and granddaughters of strong First Nations women, we are proud to have been taught and have instilled in us many cultural values and protocols.

We use the strength from stories of the struggles, challenges and resistance of our women to positively influence and change that narrative to be about resilience and passion for people and community.

Political activism for First Nations people is at the core of our being.

The fight for human rights in Australia has a long and convoluted history. We have been marching and actively protesting for decades as governments have regularly targeted their suppressive policies and attitudes towards our people.

In this context, that First Nations women are now stepping forward in large numbers to seek nomination to be candidates in local, State and Federal elections is a huge achievement.

This is the last 'great glass ceiling' of Australian politics, and we are determined to push through it, together.

We believe that for broader society to practically and structurally support equality, we must choose to challenge the dominant culture in this country.

We must further recognise the role of First Nations women in decision-making processes that have been practised by our cultures for 65,000 years.

Continuing to deny this means that the token gesture of 'holding a small space' wrapped up to look like inclusiveness for just a few First Nations women falls short, and is insulting to our journey and fails to create any meaningful and real change in the landscape.

These spaces must be filled with stories of First Nations women's lived experiences to exercise their full participation and elevate their voices so that they are not just listened to, but properly valued and respected in the whitest of spaces.

We also recognise many other First Nations women who, outside of Parliaments, have displayed amazing activism sometimes in the face of great adversity.

Many of these women have spent decades challenging these public decision-making spaces through their own style of activism. These women such as Lowitja O'Donoghue (inaugural Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) and Pat Turner (Lead Convenor of the Coalitions of Peaks) are women who stood in the face of adversity and controversy to advocate for our people and issues.

Lead candidate for the Senate, Dorinda Cox. Photo supplied.

As we look back and celebrate the trailblazers of First Nations women who took the brave step to enter public life, we take pride in knowing that this predominantly male and white arena is facing its own challenges.

This means women like us won't be silenced as they use their platforms â€" like the Senate â€" to be beacons for our future First Nations women and girls.

The future generations should be able to fully participate in Australian politics and other public decision-making processes without fear, hesitation or marginalisation because of who they are.

We as First Nations women of this country honour all our women who came before us, who are walking beside us and who will be part of our future generations that, in the present, we are all helping to shape.

By Lidia Thorpe and Dorinda Cox

Lidia Thorpe and Dorinda Cox, alongside Tamara Alderdice, Tjanara Goreng Goreng and Naomi Pigram, will share more stories of public life on a special International Women's Day Zoom panel on Wednesday March 10, 2021 at 7pm AEDT.

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