Australia: Heroines From The Outback Have A Dream

By Neena Bhandari, Womens Feature Service

Indigenous Aboriginal women from the remote Western Australian town of Fitzroy Crossing have saved their community from the scourge of alcohol abuse, domestic violence and foetal alcohol syndrome by successfully fighting for alcohol restrictions in the region. The town has a total population of 928 persons, with 67.3 per cent Indigenous persons.

In 2007, a group of courageous Aboriginal women in the outback town of

Fitzroy Crossing decided enough was enough. Their community had experienced 13 suicides in 13 months and many premature deaths. Family violence and child abuse were rife and alcohol consumption was rising at an alarming rate.

“Growing alcohol consumption was decimating our community, which was numb with grief. So a group of us women, who feel strongly about social issues and want to improve the health and happiness of our community, supported by some men, made the hard decisions and collectively fought for alcohol restriction,” informs Emily Carter, Chairperson, Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre’s (MWRC). The MWRC led this movement against alcohol from the front.

Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to drink alcohol at harmful levels, smoke, have high blood pressure, be obese, have diabetes and suffer from end-stage kidney disease. They are 2.6 times as likely to die from heart, stroke and vascular diseases, and the injury death rate for Indigenous young Australians is five times that of their non-Indigenous counterpart, according to The George Institute for International Health website. The Institute has been developing pragmatic, evidence-informed and community-based solutions to improving Indigenous health.

“We could no longer pretend that there was no problem and had to take urgent action,” says June Oscar, CEO of the MWRC, which was established in 1991 and runs a women’s refuge, where women and children can seek safe accommodation in crisis. “The number of women seeking a safe shelter had been steadily growing. So we decided to seek the intervention of the regulating authorities and took our fight all the way to Western Australia’s Director of Liquor Licensing, demanding ban on sale of full-strength liquor for take-away,” she reveals.

Today, the sale of packaged liquor, exceeding a concentration of ethanol in liquor of 2.7 per cent is prohibited to any person in Fitzroy Crossing.

But the road to bringing about the ban was fraught with danger. “There was much opposition and surprisingly, it came from people whom we thought would never oppose. We received physical threats, threat of tribal punishment, verbal abuse. It was very scary and it affected my children, especially my daughter at school. Conversation would stop when my children walked into a public place,” recalls Carter, who had earlier managed a Sobering-Up Centre in Fitzroy Crossing. Sobering-Up Centres were an initiative that sprung from Aboriginal deaths in custody over the years. Instead of sending intoxicated people to prison, they would be sent to these centres.

Supported by the wider family network, these women carried on even when the going was tough. There was success at last. The initial restrictions were announced in October 2007 and then extended for six months and since October 2008 the restrictions have been imposed indefinitely.

The restriction has resulted in major benefits for the community, with statistics clearly demonstrating significant improvements in health and social outcomes. “By curbing take-away alcohol, you can get people to responsibly serve alcohol in pubs. People are not walking away drunk,” says Carter, who feels change can’t be imposed from the top, and that indigenous communities have to be equal partners in policies that impact them.

Today the picturesque landscape of Fitzroy Crossing is no longer littered with empty beer cans, the noise levels have reduced considerably and public intoxication is at a minimum. There has been a 27 per cent reduction in alcohol-related reported domestic violence and a 48 per cent decrease in the number of people coming to the hospital emergency department with alcohol-related problems. It has also had its impact in the increasing number of children sleeping better and attending school instead of wandering the streets at night. “The results of alcohol restriction have set the community on a path of healing. Alcohol use has been affecting the future survival of Aboriginal people and women, who are the providers of care and at the same time need care,” says Oscar, one of the few in her community with a Bachelor’s degree in Business from the University of Notre Dame in Broome, Western Australia.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2006 Census, 25.6 per cent of Indigenous persons aged 15 years and over, who were usually residing in Fitzroy Crossing had completed Year 10 or equivalent of schooling, and 14.1 per cent had completed Year 12 or equivalent. Around 3.3 per cent persons aged 15-19 years were in full-time education and 20.2 per cent Indigenous persons aged 15 years and above had a qualification. The school in Fitzroy Crossing has recently been extended up to Year 12.

This powerful story of positive change brought about by the courage and resilience of Aboriginal women has been made into a documentary, ‘Yajillara’, which in the Bunuba Indigenous language means ‘to dream’, by producer and director, Melanie Hogan, and co-producer Jane Latimer.

While big corporations declined to fund the project, a generous Australian family came forward to fund it entirely, with no strings attached. Recently, ‘Yajillara’ received a standing ovation at a side event during the 53rd Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. It was a historic event as, for the first time, Aboriginal women, who were especially flown in for the event, related their story of leadership and change to an international audience.

At the film’s Sydney premier, Tanya Plibersek, Australia’s Minister for Housing and Minister for the Status of Women, said, “There is such a real hunger to hear a story about Indigenous people taking action to improve their lives. This is a story of success against odds.”

So, where will these women go from this historic feat? Says Oscar, “There are so many challenges and so many opportunities too. We have to find strategic partnerships with the government, the industry and the people to sustain our campaign, where indigenous and non-indigenous people drink responsibly. It is time Australia as a nation confronts this culture of alcohol.”

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