Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar has hit out at new figures showing a 77 percent increase in female incarceration, saying poverty, the removal of children, poor health and violence are the drivers in modern Australia.
In a hard-hitting speech delivered at the University of Western Australia that coincided with a national tour to meet with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, Ms Oscar said Indigenous women mostly accounted for the frightening spike.
Thirty-four percent of women behind bars were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, even though Indigenous women only made up two percent of the nation’s population, she said.
In WA the rates were even higher, she said.
Ms Oscar said the lives of women and children couldn’t be improved without addressing poverty and institutional racism and violence.
“In no circumstances should the conditions of poverty become one of the driving factors for increasing incarceration rates, the removal of children, poor health and violence,” she said.
“But we know in the Australia of today this is exactly what is happening.
“We cannot fail to see the direct connection between the fact that 80 percent of Indigenous women in prison are mothers, and the rapidly increasing rates of the removal of our children into out-of-home care.
“The rights of our women and the rights of our children are intimately attached.
“Of course, we must guarantee the safety and health of our children, but this is not possible in both the short and long term without responding to the needs of women and families, without reducing conditions of material poverty and the structural inequality that has entrenched it.”
Real stories of despair and discrimination
Ms Oscar said there had been many tragic stories of women who had unjustly suffered in detention.
These included Ms Dhu, who died in WA from domestic violence injuries while in police custody after neither police nor hospital staff believed her pain was life-threatening.
Another woman, Rosie Ann Fulton, from the Northern Territory, was arrested in the WA Goldfields town of Kalgoorlie on a minor motor vehicle offence and spent nearly two years in jail without having been convicted.
Ms Fulton had been found unfit to plea to criminal charges because she had foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Ms Oscar said.
Ms Oscar said at Bandyup prison a woman gave birth alone in her cell and another female prisoner was transported naked and handcuffed to a mental hospital.
She said the stories told of a “cruel and inhumane system”.
She said a culture of racism had gone unchecked in institutions.
“It means that in some circumstances, and all too often it is within our justice system, that those in a position of authority are distrustful and resentful toward those in vulnerable positions,” she said.
Ms Oscar said the Federal Government’s rejection in October of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘voice to Parliament’ was part of an ongoing denial of Indigenous peoples’ equality in Australia.
‘We should be proud to be all of who we are’
She said Indigenous women had the right to be who they were, free of discrimination.
“As Indigenous women we should be confident and proud to be all of who we are in a modern multicultural Australia, while remaining secure in our distinct and diverse Indigenous identities, knowing that we bring unique intercultural knowledge and skills to work spaces, communities and to broader Australian society,” she said.
“We should never have to resist any aspect of who we are, or feel the need to assimilate to get by because of discriminating acts against us.
“We certainly should not have to assimilate to be successful in a western society.
“We should be free to express all of who we are without fear of persecution, discrimination or any form of marginalisation.
“It seems obvious that Australia should embrace all of who we are with pride and celebration.”
Ms Oscar has been travelling around Australia as part of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meeting with and listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
She has been to Brisbane, Logan, Mt Isa, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Mildura, Yalata, Adelaide and Ceduna and will be in South Australia and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands this week.
She will next week visit Broome, Fitzroy Crossing and Kununurra.