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The relevance of family violence to Indigenous women's offending

There was 'little, if any, discussion of the prevalence of family violence within Indigenous communities in the official RCIADIC reports' (Marchetti 2007: 7), even though Indigenous women's exposure to such violence is thought to be linked to their offending patterns and incarceration (ATSISJC 2002; Gardiner & Takagaki 2002; Kerley & Cunneen 1995; NSWLRC 2000). A report by the NSW Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council (2001: 6) found that

at least 80 percent of the women surveyed said that their experience of abuse was an indirect cause of their offending. Some women revealed that the underlying cause of their drug and criminal habits was to avoid dealing with, or because they had not been able to address, the abuse that they had suffered as a child, in particular child sexual assault.

The findings of a longitudinal study in Queensland are also salient, as they draw links between childhood maltreatment and subsequent offending. Of juveniles who had been maltreated and received a police caution, 74 percent of maltreated Indigenous females reoffended, compared with only 47 percent of maltreated non-Indigenous females (see SCRCSP 2009b).

There is certainly strong evidence indicating the prevalence and intensity of family violence against Indigenous women, with data from VicPol indicating the rate of domestic violence-related assault is nearly five times higher than for non-Indigenous women. They are also 38 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault and 10 times more likely to die from assault than non-Indigenous women (Burchfield & Braybrook 2009). These data conform with data in the most recent Indigenous disadvantage report, which indicate that that Indigenous females were 34 times more likely than non-Indigenous females to be hospitalised due to family violence and they were 15 times as likely to seek Supported Accommodation Assistance Program assistance to escape such violence (45 vs 3 per 1,000 population; SCRCSP 2009b).

BOCSAR data, in turn, suggest that in New South Wales, Indigenous women are more than twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault and four times more likely to be victims of assault (Fitzgerald & Weatherburn 2001). More recent data indicated that Indigenous people (of both genders) were approximately six times more likely to be victims and approximately eight times more likely to be offenders of domestic assault than non-Indigenous people (People 2005). Data from the 2002 NATSSIS indicates that 18 percent of Indigenous women had experienced physical or threatened abuse in the past 12 months, compared with seven percent of non-Indigenous women (see ATSISJC 2008). Perhaps most dramatically of all, Indigenous women living in rural and remote areas are 45 times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence than the non-Indigenous population (Ferrante et al. cited in ATSISJS 2003; Queensland Office for Women 2009). Further data on Indigenous women's exposure to physical and sexual violence and the barriers in responding to these issues is set out in recent AIC reports by Bryant and Willis (2008) and Taylor and Putt (2007).

There is also evidence of a very high level of victimisation among Indigenous female prisoners, with the majority having been subjected to physical or sexual abuse (ATSISJC 2006). A survey of Indigenous women prisoners in New South Wales found that 70 percent of respondents had been subject to physical and sexual abuse as children; 78 percent reported being physically assaulted and 44 percent sexually assaulted as adults (Lawrie 2002), while the NSWLRC (2000) referred to reports indicating abuse rates of 90–100 percent among female Indigenous prisoners. Interestingly, Johnson (2004) found that Indigenous women who were imprisoned for a violent offence were significantly less likely to have experienced adult abuse than those Indigenous females incarcerated for non-violent offences (61% vs 83%), although two-thirds of the violent offenders had suffered incarceration.

One of the issues initially of interest to the CRC in this context was the perception that Indigenous women were becoming more likely to retaliate against ongoing family violence than previously, which has been considered in the literature. For example, Yeo (1996: 251) has suggested that 'for Aboriginal women, physical force may be the sole measure available against domestic violence given a range of factors which militate against the involvement of the police'. Stubbs and Tolmie (2008) have also suggested that Aboriginal women in some Australian communities may have fewer reservations than other women about responding to physical force with force. The 2002 ATSISJC report referred to '[a]necdotal evidence suggest[ing] increased arrest for violence is the result of Indigenous women who behave violently to protect or defend themselves, because they know that they would not receive police protection' (ATSISJC 2002: 151). The following year, it went on to say:

Indigenous women's experience of discrimination and violence is bound up in the colour of their skin as well as their gender. Strategies for addressing family violence in Indigenous communities need to acknowledge that a consequence of this is that an Indigenous woman 'may be unable or unwilling to fragment their identity by leaving the community, kin, family or partners' as a solution to the violence' (ATSISJC 2003: 159).