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Women create 'Blakprint' for Indigenous gender justice

Rudi Maxwell -

Kuku Yalanji woman Michelle Deshong asks herself a question at the end of every day.

"Did I stay silent or did I speak up when I needed to? And I can absolutely say that on most occasions I speak," she said.

"The older I get, the more conscious I am of time, of place, of mortality; that we don't have an infinite amount of time – but we do have the responsibility to ensure that we make the best of it. And I do that every single day."

Ms Deshong, a political scientist, was one of the co-hosts of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani summit, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar.

More than 900 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women gathered on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country in Canberra last week to discuss the issues that matter to them, under the theme 'We are the change'.

The summit was the culmination of the five-year project called Wiyi Yani U Thangani -women's voices in Bunuba language - led by Ms Oscar.

"Women are speaking and demanding the right to self-determination, their right to agency, their right to have their voices listened to," Ms Oscar told AAP.

When she became the first female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Ms Oscar wanted to champion the voices and human rights of Indigenous women.

So she did something revolutionary, yet simple. She asked them what they wanted to say.

Throughout 2018, Ms Oscar and her team travelled to 50 locations in urban, regional and remote areas across every state and territory, meeting with more than 2000 Indigenous women and girls.

"I think of all our women's hands that have raised children, worked, crushed seeds, kneaded dough, rubbed medicine into skin, fought at the frontline of invasion," she said.

"And held their babies close, ensuring that they would become us.

"When I started Wiyi Yani U Thangani it was with the image of our women's hands in mind, holding the fishing lines and the digging sticks, tilling the earth, tending to the soils for our homes, the foundation of all our existences."

At the end of the summit on Thursday, the delegates released a communique as 'a blakprint' for systemic and structural reform.

It says the next steps are a national framework for action and an Institute for First Nations Gender Justice and Equality, to be homed at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman, shared some of her personal history during her keynote address at the summit.

"It's no secret that, when it comes to the challenges facing our communities, women know the causes – and we know how to address them," she said.

"The strength of women coming together, like we are today, is about sharing that knowledge.

"Because we are stronger together."

Ms Oscar and Ms Deshong both believe First Nations women are on the cusp of a movement.

No longer content to be asking for a seat at the table, Indigenous women have decided to build their own table - and it's going to be a long trestle, to include chairs for matriarchs, elders, grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunties, and youth.

Australia has never had a consistent and coherent national plan or approach to respond to the rights and interests of First Nations women and girls.

Ms Oscar said the First Nations Institute for Gender Justice and Equality was a direct response to what Indigenous women and girls have called for.

"A framework and an institute owned by us, for us, that elevates our strengths and holds our truths," she said.

"It will set down our actions for nationwide structural reform to help develop the systems that will work for us and support our lives and rights on the ground.

"This is so much more than an event, it is a historic gathering that will become a part of our individual and common histories."

The Institute will be a place where First Nations women will create the research agenda, design the models to support thriving societies for Indigenous women and families and put forward evidence-based and innovative policy.

"We are on the precipice of significant change," Ms Deshong said.

"And as Indigenous women, we will be the people who lead that change, who create the narrative of self-determination.

"We will be the blueprint of what that looks like. We will be the leaders who move our people along that journey with us."

Ms Deshong summed up the message of strength, resilience and tidda-hood (sisterhood) at the summit.

"We are the ones that we've been waiting for," she said.

"We are the change."

Rudi Maxwell - AAP

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