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Ordinary Australians will be the ones to drive greater equality and are already demonstrating an overwhelming amount of support for giving First Nations peoples a seat at the table, according to a panel of four eminent Indigenous women speaking at our International Women’s Day Breakfast Panel.
Emphasising the need for a grassroots movement to bring about change, Pro Vice Chancellor Indigenous UNSW and proud Cobble Cobble woman Professor Megan Davis, was joined by criminal defence lawyer and proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman Teela Reid, and award-winning writer, artist, NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year for 2020 and proud Gunai woman, Kirli Saunders at the event hosted in partnership with Witchery.
The resounding agreement around the pressing need for autonomy was unpacked as host Emily Hill, proud Dunghutti/Yuin woman, diplomat and director at the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, moderated the discussion around what gender equality in a Covid-19 world looks like for First Nations women.
As Emily pointed out, “When we know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a considerably lower rate of workforce participation compared to men, and non-Indigenous women… When we know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are more likely to experience family and domestic violence than non-Indigenous women, there is bound to be a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women of colour.”
Megan agreed, saying, “Lockdown exacerbated the structural inequalities when it came to, for example, women’s mobility and capacity to call upon the police, being able to attend a shelter. So we know that this period was absolutely appalling. And the Commonwealth has completely dropped the ball on that. So across the line, things that are meant to protect and catch vulnerable people in terms of that welfare safety net, didn’t work.”
As a defense lawyer, Teela shared her experience of seeing first hand the vulnerability of Indigenous women. “One of my experiences of going back to work in 2021 was walking down into the police cells, and in the cells, two of the three people locked up overnight were Aboriginal women. And it really hit me that we just have so much work to do.”
“My mom is just one of the most resilient, strongest persons I know. I think it’s put me in this very important position now to be continuing to make those changes.”—Kirli Saunders
But this work can only be effective when self-determination for First Nations people is entrenched into policy, the benefits of which have been evidenced by the success in Aboriginal communities when it came to protecting their own from the virus.
“We do have examples of incredible resilience and strength in our communities. While governments were trying to figure out what to do with the Australian population generally, most remote aboriginal communities had already shut down very quickly, communities had erected wash your hands signs in the language country… I think it’s a really good example of self-determination,” said Megan. “The Commonwealth could apply that right across the board, by ensuring that anytime there’s a major policy, you are mandated to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the table. Because they’ve seen the success of having us at the table, and it’s saved them a huge amount of money and resources.
“And really, that’s all we’re asking for – a constitutionally enshrined voice, not just when there is a crisis, but every single day.”
Teela added, “Not many people understand that the Federal Parliament has the power to make laws both to the benefit and to the detriment of First Nations peoples. So it’s trying to have a conversation with people about why it is integral for First Nations voices to be heard 365 days of the year. It’s making sure that at every single decision making table – the grassroots community driven voices that as we know, through COVID, have the answers and the solutions within their communities, are present.”
Teela and Megan were both involved with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which is a formal appeal for a referendum to introduce a representative body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Parliament, and a commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between government and First Nations.
“My thinking has been shaped by seeing our matriarchs really disrupting systems that have historically oppressed us, and not being afraid to think freely.”—Teela Reid
“What we have now is a proposal for what a voice looks like on the table, and there’s a consultation period currently underway,” explained Megan. “But if we look at the submissions from people – it’s overwhelmingly clear that ordinary Australians want to go to that referendum.”
It is this awareness amongst ordinary Australians that is perhaps the most powerful tool that can help take the cause from an “exhausting protest one or two times a year” to an everyday reality.
Kirli, who was part of 2020’s Share the Mic Now movement [a social media campaign where people of colour took over the accounts of notable celebrities] emphasised the importance of getting the message out.
“On a grassroots level, people need to hear the stories and content of First Nations people, we need the reach and access to larger audiences,” she said.
Within Aboriginal communities, it is the matriarchs, the women who hold the frontline “speaking truth to power”, explained Teela, who wrote Our Matriarchs Matter in 2020, an award-winning manuscript that tells the story of how powerful women are in the community.
“My thinking has been shaped by seeing our matriarchs really disrupting systems that have historically oppressed us, and not being afraid to think freely,” said Teela.
Kirli concurred: “Matriarchy is big in my life. I feel very supported to have women like my Mum and my aunts and grandparents who have done incredible things throughout history. My mom is just one of the most resilient, strongest persons I know. I think it’s put me in this very important position now to be continuing to make those changes. And we can make change by supporting other women to do the same and having these conversations.”
“That’s why elevating First Nations women’s voices is so crucial to the structural changes that people are continuing to fight for,” Teela summed up. “To help truly understand the story, and the narratives that come from our communities.”
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