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Complex barriers prevent disclosure of violence by Indigenous victims

Media Release

19 January 2011

In all communities there is a degree of reluctance to report violence, especially when perpetrated by family members. New research released today by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has found that fears of retribution and further violence, stigmatisation, shame and  distrust of the justice system and government agencies, are among a long list of barriers that prevent Indigenous victims from disclosing violence to authorities and victim support services.

The AIC paper Non-disclosure of violence in Australian Indigenous communities was funded by the Australian Crime Commission’s National Indigenous Intelligence Task Force and shows that the interconnectedness of Indigenous society along with its rules and obligations tend to operate against disclosing victimisation.

AIC Director, Dr Adam Tomison, said that in some Indigenous communities violence is so widespread there is an expectation that it is inevitable and is something to be tolerated and not disclosed.

“Overall, Indigenous people experience violence (as offenders and victims) at rates two to five times those experienced by non-Indigenous people. This can be even higher in some remote communities and much higher for Indigenous women”, Dr Tomison said.

“Indigenous people are more likely to turn to their families and communities than police when victimised, due to a fear of being ostracized, causing more harm to their families and the possibility of disclosures leading to further violence in the community.”

In addition, societal obligations and previous experiences with the criminal justice system were found to be barriers to disclosing violence, especially child abuse. Some female victims fear that reporting violence may lead to their children being taken away and ultimately cause more harm to their families and the community than tolerating violence without disclosure.

A lack of Indigenous-specific victim support services and a lack of Indigenous staff within mainstream services were also found to reduce disclosure by Indigenous victims. Especially in remote communities, there may be few avenues for support and a lack of anonymity and confidentiality may further reduce the options available to victims.

“It is essential that services take flexible culturally-secure approaches that respond to the diversity in Indigenous culture”, Dr Tomison said.

“Responses for Indigenous victims need to be developed in conjunction with Indigenous communities and incorporate Indigenous perspectives, while recognising the practicalities of service provision in this environment.”


Non disclosure of violence in Australian Indigenous Communities

Overall, Indigenous people experience violence (as offenders and victims) at rates that are typically two to five times those experienced by non-Indigenous people and this can be much higher in some remote communities. Indigenous women in particular are far more likely to experience violent victimisation, and suffer more serious violence, than non-Indigenous women. Some studies indicate that up to 90 percent of violence against Indigenous women is not disclosed (p1).

Recent Australian Crime Commission intelligence through the National Indigenous Intelligence Task Force has informed this paper by providing case studies that highlight the nature of violence faced by Indigenous women in traditional communities, and ways in which those incidents were resolved (pp 5, 7- 8).

The paper examines a wide range of social and cultural barriers that may prevent the reporting of violence in Indigenous communities, along with obstacles to reporting in the justice system. Barriers include remoteness of community, language barriers, cultural obligations, mistrust of police and shame and embarrassment. For example, a lack of female forensic officers has been identified as a barrier to the reporting of sexual assault among Indigenous women (p8).

In a recent AIC survey the most commonly cited reasons for women not reporting violence  were fear of further violence, and ‘payback’ - culturally related violent retribution - while another contemporary survey highlighted fear that making a report would escalate the violence, and a lack of confidentiality in small communities (p4).

The paper identifies a need to provide education for community members on what constitutes reportable abuse and violence as a means of assisting with disclosure of violence to authorities. Further, that education for police and community services in recognising and understanding cultural and familial obligations, and the use of community responses that provided healing and maintained connectedness where appropriate would also assist in higher rates of reporting (p9). It was identified that the Indigenous women surveyed preferred restorative justice approaches that restored relationships between offenders, victims and the community, while non-Indigenous women prioritised holding men accountable through the courts (p9).

The paper also states that having both male and female police officers with the skills and training to respond to vulnerable victims present in communities, and who are trusted by the community, is critical to ensuring community members can disclose victimisation, and feel safe. This approach also allows for more proactive policing responses to reduce reliance on disclosure by victims (p9).