The first of its kind in Western Australia, Melaleuca Women’s Prison’s cultural leadership program is empowering Aboriginal women to process traumas and reclaim control of their lives.

The Prevention Early Intervention Leadership (PEIL) Program was delivered by the Western Australian Aboriginal Leadership Institute’s (WAALI) Aboriginal Elders and facilitators. It encourages self-reflection, and builds resilience, financial literacy, and leadership skills.

Seventeen of the 21 women who enrolled in the program have now graduated, and of those who didn’t, two were released on bail, one transferred to another program, and only one withdrew.

One woman who participated in the program, Tammy*, said the program helped her gain confidence and a focus on the future.

“When I start when I first started WAALI program, I was shame, I was shy, and I was nervous, but now I come right out of my shell,” she said.

“I’m more confident, more uplifting and more focused on the future, what I know I have to do.”

“I was so proud this course has actually come inside.”

Losing her mother as a teenager meant Tammy missed out on the opportunity to learn about her culture.

She said yarning with Elders Aunty Shirley Harris and Aunty Marie Pryor, and project leader Yvonne Daddow connected her to her identity and showed her that her mob would always be there for her.

“Having this cultural leadership program to have that support from Elders, they’re not my mob, but I have much respect for my Elders and I call them my Aunties. It has given me reassurance about who I am and where I come from, and knowing that I’m not alone,” she said.

“Opening up was a main burden upon me because I’m always quiet I handle things on my own, I feel like I’m a burden to anybody else. But having to yarn with these Elders that come in, it’s really touching.”

Tammy called the conversations life-changing, and said they gave her hope for change.

“It showed me that we can become better people, we can strive for life in a better way, instead of wasting our time locked up behind bars,” she said.

Graduates of the WAALI program. Photo Supplied WA Department of Justice.

Funded by Lotterywest, the PEIL program is based on WAALI’s Yorga Djenna Bidi Aboriginal Women’s Leadership Program, which has been running since 2015.

Members of Yorga Djenna Bidi’s 200-strong group of alumni acted as mentors and facilitators in the PEIL program, offering financial literacy training alongside other leadership and trauma recovery training PEIL offered.

Yued Noongar woman Jodie Wyatt, Operations manager at WAALI, said participants of the Yorga Djenna Bidi course running concurrently with PEIL were able to connect with the women receiving the same training on the inside.

“We actually came back talking to our cohort at Yorga Djenna Bidi about what was happening for the women in the prison and they wanted to become pen pals with them,” she said.

“They offered the support when they come out [of the prison] and they even asked if they could provide toiletries and things like that for the women.”

Wyatt said incarcerated graduates of PEIL program have been told they’re considered the same as Yorga Djenna Bidi graduates, with access to the same professional development programs offered to all alumni.

Wilmen and Kaneang Noongar woman Dr Robyn Smith-Walley is the Chair & Co-Founder of WAALI. She said there were few dry eyes at the PEIL leadership program graduation.

“I pinch myself all the time at how amazing this work is that we do, and the opportunities that we are able to create,” she said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about taking our people on the journey to be able to live their lives to their best capacity and then be able to take care of their families.

“It’s about just giving women the opportunity to realise that they are already leaders. Just work on using your voice and taking all those skills that we give you to make things better.”

The Department of Justice’s Deputy Commissioner for Women and Young People, Andy Beck said the Department recognised the significant role of self-determination in such programs.

“We recognise the importance of Aboriginal people’s participation and engagement in programs that improve wellbeing in a culturally safe environment,” he said.

“Many Aboriginal women in custody have not had access to cultural supports, language and appropriate educational opportunities. This is one gap we are trying to address.”

Beck said the PEIL Program intends to nurture women to take up leadership opportunities in their families and communities.

“This program empowers these women to take control of their own lives, giving them a vision for the future so they can put their past behind them,” he said.

“At the graduation, we saw empowered Yorgas standing on Whadjuk Boodjar talking about their culture in their way and about their hopes and dreams for a positive future.

“It was incredibly moving to see these proud and empowered women share their stories in front of a crowd of people.”

*Names of participants have been changed.

By Sarah Smit