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Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar reignites call to raise the voices of Indigenous women

Jarred Cross -

Outgoing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar says the work to lift the voices of Indigenous women must continue to build a stronger "social fabric".

On Wednesday, the federal government announced a four-year, $3 million dollar injection of support towards the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute for First Nations Gender Justice at ANU, dedicated to research for improving outcomes for Indigenous women and girls.

The institute is a product of Ms Oscar and her team's engagement with their voices in community and the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women's Voices) 2020 report.

Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Ms Oscar spoke of the influence the women in her life - and the barriers they faced - had on her while growing up on Bunuba Country in the Kimberley region.

She said in the generations before her grandmother's birth, the Bunuba population had been reduced to a tenth of its size prior to colonisation.

It was "apocalyptic", and led her grandmother to "turn her back" on white society.

Ms Oscar noted the gaps and concerns in the justice system, incarceration, housing, suicide, household and family violence and health as examples of inequality where colonial influence and a Western ideal-approach to "profit" has contributed.

She said "disastrous" generational repercussions have come from a silencing of Indigenous women and their responsibility to a deep tradition to nurture and tend to "social fabric".

To her, this is the "bedrock" of nation building.

Ms Oscar said "seemingly ordinary, everyday acts" of Bunuba practice taught by the matriarchs who raised her were a form of resistance to a "system that insisted this new Australia was not for us, and denigrated our women, implicitly condoning gendered violence, abuse and rape".

The Wiyi Yani U Thangani Institute aims to continue the work of raising those long-silenced voices.

"When we know each other, we can listen without fear, and act together with integrity and humility, walking into a future where we lay the foundations to account for everyone and exclude no one," she said.

Ms Oscar also touched on her work helping research of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in her home community, raising the age of criminal responsibility and the value of community voices in decision-making.

On October's failed referendum, the outgoing Commissioner said "the Voice fell victim to what it aimed to counteract" but the result could serve as a "vital wake-up call" for continued efforts towards a shared vision for the future.

Ms Oscar said the fear and resistance sparked through the debate was the diametric opposite of her grandmother's lessons.

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