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Keynote Address: Challenges for Women in the 21st Century

Presented by Linda Burney, Wiradjuri Nation Australia

Let me begin this keynote address by carrying out a very important cultural protocol that I as am required to observe. It is what we call acknowledgement of Country. It is essentially the acknowledgment that we gather for this very important meeting on country that is Traditional Country of the many ethnically diverse of people at Thailand. This may seem like a strange thing to say for some of you. Sisters here from colonised countries will know exactly why I observe this protocol. It stands without question that through the carriage of history and time Indigenous Peoples whilst not being able to always access their country never ever lose spiritual connection to it.

I also acknowledge the Elders and Senior women who are with us. It is your wisdom, experience, and guidance that will help us make the right decisions and have the important discussions over the forthcoming days.

As I acknowledge Elders I am also reminded that it is our youth that must be given a voice for it is these young treasures that will inherit the legacy we bequeath them.

I am deeply honoured to be at this Asia Pacific Regional NGO Symposium: Asia Pacific Women 2000 Gender Equality Development and Peace. Bringing together women from our region is a mighty thing. Standing today in this room is striking. Our diversity is an obvious. Our languages are many. Our spiritual beliefs are different, our lifestyles varied. Yet in this diversity rest our strength. For in this diversity lies two commonalities. Firstly we are women and secondly we all believe and are part of the struggle for decency and the right for all people to enjoy the ability to live in a civil society.

I am firmly convinced that it is women in the main that understand the need for a civil society. It is women that through our nurturing, strength and endurance provide the basis for civil society to bloom, and in this troubled world, not always, but sometimes bare fruit.

It is a great honour and even historic that an Indigenous women from Australia is delivering this keynote address. It is a sign I believe, that our country is beginning to grow up. A physical representation that women in my country know it is no longer sustainable to keep Indigenous people at the margin of life and society. It is a sign that the practice of truth telling is crucial in the maturation of a nation.

Five years ago in Beijing a platform for active was determined - It was:

A stunning aspect of Beijing was the participation statistics that have been published since. 5000 official delegates, 189 governments and international organisations, 4000 NGOs accredited in the UN and 30,000 NGO representatives. This to me is a major statement about strength, decency and a civil society and the stand women are prepared to take particularly in the NGO sector in the name of these three principles. I think the Women's movement has much to teach other areas about organization, lobbying and pure grit. The women's network is local, regional, national and international.

Can I also pay deep respect and gratitude to our host, dinataries and the organizers for this gathering. Two weeks ago in Australia I convened a convention that had a 12-month preparation stage. I know what goes in to putting a gathering of this nature and this complexity together. Your generosity is felt and respected.

I have spent many hours in contemplation on what I would talk about today. In the end I decided to do something I very rarely do. I am going to begin the journey we will take together for the next little while with a story, a story about my self. I choose to start with a story because of something friend of mine and one of the leaders in the women's movement in Australia said in a recent speech she delivered on Citizenship. Her name is Wendy MCarthy.

Wendy spoke about the power of the narrative and the importance of the role of women in protecting and practising the art of story telling. It is a powerful way to find our common ground and to sustain ourselves. It is the art of the narrative that has been the tool of passing on customs and lore for Indigenous people from the beginning of time. It is also something that woman do well. It is a perfect tool of communication. A story can educate, entertain and draw pictures in words we can all relate to.

The story is about me and in telling this story I want to share with you some thing of our story, the Aboriginal story, the untold story of Australia.

I am a member of the Wiradijuri Nation. My country begins west of Sydney, which was the original sight of settlement, invasion and land theft for the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. The Great Dividing Range separates the Wiradijuri from the coastal peoples. Our nations boundaries fall within one of the eastern states of Australia called New South Wales. The Wiradijuri nation was the first inland nation to experience the brunt of British invasion. The Wiradjuri like all other Aboriginal nations waged a war of resistance. Eventually spear and boomerang were no match for the greed for land, the barbarity of hunting parties and the deadly nature of steel and guns.

My story begins in 1957 in a tiny village in southwestern NSW. My mother was white my father black. My mother was not married and left that town not long after my birth. It was at a time in our country where the practice of removing light skinned Aboriginal children into care was considered the way to remove the Aboriginal problem. I was to befall this fate when my great aunt and uncle who were brother and sister on my mother's side decided to raise me. My mother moved away from the town probably to escape the shame of an illegitimate black child.

I was never told that I was Aboriginal or who my Aboriginal family was. The importance of knowing family and kinship ties is one of the fundamentals of our culture. I grew up felling always incomplete, like a piece of the jigsaw was missing. I don't think this was done for any vexatious reason. I guess it was assumed it was for my own good.

I grew up in a country whose mirror did not reflect my people or me. Our image in that mirror was ugly, distorted or non-existent. Australia is a country whose history has been written by the conquer.

I cannot speak my language because my grandmother a great grandmother's generation were not allowed to speak our traditional language. There are only a few old people who still speak it and they will soon pass on.

I remember at the age of ten or eleven being told I would never amount to anything. Black and illegitimate I know now were the reasons behind such a vicious statement. The person who said this to me, in hindsight not only spurred me on to prove her wrong but to also to alert me to racism, ignorance and prejudice.

It has only been these last four years that I have been able to call myself Australian. Why? Because the mirror did not reflect me. The country had no idea of the precious gift of the oldest surviving culture on the planet. The gift and spirituality Aboriginality delivers to Australia and Australians.

I remember sitting in a classroom at the age of 13 feeling like I wanted to fall between the cracks in the floor because I was made to feel so ashamed of who and what I am. Being taught that my people were savages, had no culture or technology and were the closest examples to Stone Age men still in existence. Perhaps it was this experience that made me decide to become one educator.

I finally found and met my father in 1984 at the age of 28. The search took five years. He reached out and held me and said, "I hope I don't disappoint you". The missing piece of who I was as an Aboriginal women was put into place.

Australia is a place known as the "lucky country". Australia could be well described as the lucky country. We have stable government with low inflation rates, low interest rates. We enjoy freedom of association and freedom of speech. There is a free health care system and a social security system that includes unemployment benefits and a variety of pensions.

It sees it self as a nation of fun loving sports people, A young nation that thumbs its nose at authority. A nation of rugged individualism. A country of rough terrain and splendid vista's. A country that is tolerant and a shining example of multiculturalism, where the ethos is bound up with the notion of a "Fair go for all". A fair go if you are fair skinned is probably a more accurate description.

However, there is another story, another reality in Australia. A story that is not about health and wealth let alone a fair go for all. In fact it is a story that up until now has been deliberately expunged from the history and consciousness of Australia.

I am 42 years old and spent the first ten years of my life under the Flora and Fauna act of NSW. Aboriginal Peoples in Australia didn't gain Citizenship until 1967 and therefore were not counted in the census. We were not by law able to vote. Australia knew how many sheep it had but not how many Aboriginal people had survived government policy after government policy ranging from physical genocide to welfare assimilation, self management, self determination and now a very much wound back version of self determination.

In Australia there is a formal definition of an Aboriginal person. We are the only specific group where a formal definition exist. We have to prove our Aboriginality by meeting this government definition.

I will tell you what my Aboriginality is bound up with. It is not a government definition. It is my connection to country, my kinship ties, our spiritual connection to each other. It is not about my physical appearance. It is what is on the inside. It is the pride of being a member of the oldest continous surviving culture on planet Earth.

The lot of Indigenous People in Australia today is not a story you would perhaps associate with Australia, a prosperous first world nation.

In August this year the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare released a report which is difficult reading. It related the following:

Of these horrendous statistics, there is only one other I want to share with you. In our communities, as it is with your own, it is mostly women that bear the brunt. It is also the women that essentially provide the glue at the local level to keep things stuck together - true heroes!

There is a quote by Michael Dodson, an esteemed leader in our country, that best sums up this story of a social justice that isn't...

"A certain kind of industrial deafness has developed. The meaning of these figures is not heard or felt. The statistics of infant and perinatal mortality are our babies and children who die in our arms. The statistics of a shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts and elders who live diminished lives and die before their gifts of knowledge and experience are passed on. We die silently under these statistics."

I do not have the time to take you through the history of black and white relationships and the history that has created today's social situation in our country. There is one aspect of our history though that I wish to share with you. It is the story of the Stolen Generations. I tell you all this part of Australian history for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is a gathering concerned with the issue of equity for women, of human rights issues essentially. The horror and tragedy of this story can be grasped by all but especially by women who are the bearers of children - the givers of life!

The Stolen Generation and its consequences are current today for Australians, all Australians. It has been until very recently an aspect of our history that was not known, not taught, not written about and never talked about.

It can safely be said that there is not on single individual Aboriginal person or family that has not been touched by this practice.

In 1996, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission commenced its Inquiry into the "Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families". In many ways this Inquiry deeply affected and changed forever the way Australia saw itself. It drew a line in the sand and was the inquiry that forced Australia to look at its history and itself. This was the Inquiry that educated Australians more than any other to the dark pages of our history. It was the inquiry that created the situation where Australian's could no longer say "but we didn't know". In the NSW Government response to the inquiry the responsible Minister, Andrew Refshauge said:

"To move the process of reconciliation forward, we must deal with the legacies of the past and understand how they shape the present. In renewing our partnership, we must ensure that the mistakes of the past relationships are never repeated."

Australia was seized in 1788 and the legal doctrine of Terra Nullus, land belonging to no one, empty country. Unlike New Zealand, the USA and Canada, no treaties were entered into. The ensuing century was filled with bloody wars, massacres, disease and the displacement for Aboriginal peoples. The suffering of women is almost too horrible to tell. Truganini a famous Tasmanian Aboriginal women epitimises the violence carried out in the name of civilisation. By the age of seventeen she had been raped, had seen her mother stabbed, her uncle shot, her stepmother kidnapped, her sisters captured and kidnapped and her betrothed murdered.

Our numbers fell dramatically and there was a belief that we would die out.

In 1883, the dreaded Aboriginal Protection Board was established to "smooth the dying fellow" of the Aboriginal Race. The Board became the master of every aspect of our lives. It established reserves and forced people off their lands to reserves. Life on reserves. It dislocated families, severed us from our connection to country. Many people died and continue to die of disease and broken hearts. People had no choice but to live in these hellholes. This massive forced dislocation lay the foundations of many of the social ills and cultural loss we suffer today.

In 1902, the Board was given the power to remove so called "neglected children".

In 1909 Aborigines Protection Act was enacted in the state of NSW, similar legislation was enacted in other states. This legislation gave legal sanction to the APB to separate and remove Aboriginal children from their families. In 1915, amendments to the Act gave the ADB the power to remove Aboriginal children without parental consent and without a court order.

In 1940, the Aboriginal Welfare Board replaced the APB - The Focus was on assimilation and removal of "light skinned" children.

These policies continued until the late 1960's and the Aboriginal Welfare Board was disbanded in 1969. However these polices continued into the 1970's.

It is impossible to convey to you in such a short space of time what this meant to us. Imagine your own children, your grandchildren, nieces and nephews ripped away from you, never knowing why, where they went, whether they lived or died and whether they would ever find their way home again!

The abuse and exploitation that many of the stolen children suffered when they were sent out to work under conditions of virtual slavery is now documented. The effects of generations of removal are not in the past. People in this conference if you had been born as an Aboriginal person in Australia there would have been a one in five chance you would have been taken from your family.

The effects of broken families, mental illness, alcoholism, poor parenting because of lack of role models is reverberating in the present generation and tragically will be handed on to the next.

Margaret Tucker tells of the day she and her sister were taken:

"The policeman, who no doubt was doing his duty patted his handcuffs, which were in a leather case on his belt, and which May and I thought was a revolver…'I'll have to use this if you do not let us take these children now. Thinking that the policeman would shoot Mother, because she was trying to stop him, we screamed: 'we'll go with him Mum, we'll go...' My last memory of her for many years was her waving pathetically, as we waved back and called out goodbye to her."

There is a major political debate raging in Australia at present around a national apology to Aboriginal People regarding the Stolen Generations and for the injustices of the past. The present Federal Government has steadfastly refused to offer a full apology. I understand a statement of regret has just been passed in the Federal Parliament. It is not a full-fledged apology and the cynic in me questions the Federal Government's motives. It is my view that the polls were telling them that they had a problem and the Australian people were demanding action.

Australia stands at a very critical time in our history. The formal process of Reconciliation is due to finish on the 31st December 2000. The Centenary of Federation begins on the 1st January 2001. Both of these two events will require a major debate on Constitutional change. At present Aboriginal rights are not recognised in the Australian Constitution. And of course we have the Olympics in September next year. There will be 30 thousand international journalist in Australia. They will say the harbor sparkles, the games were great, what about human rights?

One amazing phenomena out of the Inquiry has been the "Sorry Books". Because the government wouldn't apologize, NGOs through ANTaR initiated a people's movement to sign Sorry Books. One million Australians signed them offering a personal apology. All state governments have apologized many local governments, police forces, government agencies, NGO's and church groups.

The Prime Minister must have been feeling a little isolated.

Our country has also experienced in unprecedented surge in extreme right wing politics. The emergence of the One Nation party drove the political climate dangerously to the right.

At the 1997 National Reconciliation Convention Dr. Faith Bandler an outstanding fighter for justice in our country gave this message:

"In this climate of callousness, where moves to dismantle structures of democracy are heavily overshadowing us, our task now is to use our voices, our energy, our will and our talents to mobilise the forces for good. I am sure we can demolish these forces of destruction under the banner of justice for all. But we must act today, because tomorrow it may be too late".

Just this year in a publication called Walking Together Malcolm Fraser a former priminister said:

"...An apology above all is recognition that something wrong was done and we regret that it happened. It is perhaps the most important thing we can do which is within our power to address matters of the spirit. There will never be reconciliation with Aboriginal people and other Australians unless we understand that there are both material and spiritual issues involved".

While there have been many attempts and genocide of indigenous people. This was the most sustained.

The HEROC report determined that the policy of removal was in fact genocide.

Sir Ronold Wilson who lead the inquiry made the following statement in1997:

"Genocide is not an attempt to destroy an individual. Genocide is the attempt to destroy a people, a culture. Listen to this, bearing in mind that the history of our laws and practices directed to assimilate testify to an intention to put an end to the Aboriginal race by removing their children in order to bring them up in white society, in many cases all knowledge of their Aboriginality was denied to them, they were not allowed to access their family or their language, or their land, or their culture or their history".

A Statement of Regret will not take away the sad fact my friends that Aboriginal Grannies still hunt the children away or hide them when a strange car pulls up out the front of the house. "Quick" they say, "run the welfare will get you".

The political relationship between Aboriginal people and the Federal Government requires comment.

Since the election of the Coalition Government in 1996 relationships with Indigenous Groups have steadily gotten worse.

The same could be said by other equity groups especially women the aged and young people.

There is no longer an official policy of Self-Determination for Indigenous people in Australia. Recently recently won Native Title Rights have also been wound back. The 1993 Mabo ruling and the 1996 Wik determination in the High Court resulted in Aboriginal people gaining the right to claim Native Title. It is a complex piece of legislation that is essentially about a Property Right.

In 1998 through a bitter and divisive debate amendments to the legislation were enacted in the Federal Parliament. One consequence of the new legislation was the diminishment of Indigenous rights but not that of the mining companies and the farming sector.

One outcome of this was unprecedented action within the UN. Australia was the first, First World Nation to be called in front of Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to prove that its amendments to the Native Title legislation was not racially discriminatory on the ground of diminishing the rights of Indigenous people. It was found that Australian Government had acted in a racially discriminatory way.

There has been the alienation of the Indigenous leadership and the undermining of the national elected body ATSIC. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Commission has in many ways been sidelined.

The relationship between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal women has not always been an equal or easy one in Australia. The feminist movement during the 60's and 70's and early 80,s was not that much less paternalistic or ignorant to the issue of Aboriginal women then society as a whole. Women's issues are not always the same.

Whilst white Australian women were fighting justly and rightly for equality we were fighting for our survival as a people. This struggle was and still is what drives and necessarily dominates and takes our energies.

I am pleased to say that the women's movement in Australia has and continues to increasingly and honourably and recognize the imperatives of Aboriginal women as distinct in many areas.

I have to say that sexism is alive and well in the Aboriginal community. At a grass roots level women occupy many positions of influence. At the state level there are less women in these positions. At the national level men dominate very noticeably. This sounds familiar I am sure.

Some of you would be aware that there is a formal process of Reconciliation underway on Australia. It is a ten year process and it is in its ninth year. The process is really at two levels. There is the political level, which is about addressing social justice issues, legislative reform and the formal adoption of a Declaration of Reconciliation. The other level is what we call the people's movement. In the people's movement woman are playing a leading and key role. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Woman in partnership are working together. Aboriginal women are being given a voice.

Olive Biendary Knight an Aboriginal woman from Western Australia a Community Women's Officer said this about the role of Aboriginal women in the process:

" These women are all working for Reconciliation, all the time. They are doing what they can do, because they want a better future for their kids. They are working to empower themselves in their communities, to get pride back".

Professor Rosemary Pringle, Director, Australian Institute of Women's Research Policy - Grffith University noted that there was a pervading sense of the power that could be harnessed by Indigenous e non-Indigenous women working together to overcome the handships, pain, misunderstanding and ignorance of the past. "I think for many of us we now have a sense that we are in this one for the long haul, and were probably going to have to be"

I want to finish by commenting on our challenges in partnership for the 21st century. A change of the millenium will not mean that all of the issues we are dealing with now will magically disappear. The 12 points of the platform for action will remain the challenges for us involved in the struggle for justice.

I would suggest, and this is a personal opinion that a priority for women must be political representation. We must have a seat and shape the opinion of political parties at all levels of government. We are 50 percent of the worlds population but we certainly do not hold 50 percent of political positions.

The challenges of globalization will not decrease, probably the will become more intense. We must keep the pressure on all of our respective governments.

My main message however is that the women's movement has still some distance to travel in recognizing the role it has in reflecting and taking up the issues of Indigenous women. This is very relevant at the domestic and the international level. Delegations from Nation States should include Indigenous women. Recommendations and discussions and agendas should consider the issues of Indigenous women. NGOs need to inform themselves and insure their positions and platforms include the issues of Indigenous women. If this isn't done then mainstream women's organisations continue the colonization process.

Lilla Watson a Queensland Murri women expresses this when she said: " If you have come to help me, you can go away because I don't need you, but If you have come because your struggle is bound up with mine, then we can work together".

So I come back to where I began. Women's role in protecting the narrative, the art of storytelling. Our challenge is to listen and learn from each other. To be able too truly stand in each other's shoes.

I share with you the words of two heroines of mine. One is an author, poor and black. The other is wealthy, white an the wife of the Governor General of Australia. They epitomize to me the possibility of true solidarity and what is possible between us as women.

Ruby Langford Ginibi, author of "REAL DEADLY"
Published by Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1991
(Review by Diana Santleben)

Aboriginal people have been resisting white invasion of their land and culture for over two hundred years. They are sesisters par excellence. This resistance also leads to an imense amout of persecution on account of their stance.

'Can't relay on them ... they won't work' etc; such tags put upon their non cooperation with the dominating oppressive society ... they are hated because they resist. From contless centuries of practsing a far more holistic culture than ours they are not about to give in and sell their souls.

Ruby Langfor Ginbi's writings show her as a woman intent on being. She is a person who has resisted the cult of having and doing. Ruby is a mother, a daughter, a granny, aunty and a lover. She treats the important things in life as important - family, old people's wisdom, kids problems, food, friends, physical comfort, the past, money, men and home all have their proper place. None of the things Ruby has written about could be eliminated as unimportant. The fears of convention do not matter as much as relationships - that makes Ruby a heroine of the resistance.

She's been poor all her life. She grew up under the oppressive policies of the Aborigines Protection Board - who had been rounding my people up like cattle and putting them on to missions.

There you either slaved your guts out for the white manager, or lived on handouts of sugar, tea, and flour... besided the racism was a terrific burdento bear contimually (p.16)

Ruby describes how she and all the Kooris have survived:

We at all times picked each other up, every time we got knocked down in the game of life. I might add that it really wasn't a game to be played for fun, though fun we made of it, every chance we got. It was the only way we could cope with all the battling, sorrow and hardships that life had to offer us. It taught us how to roll with the punches that life gave us - we got to be pretty expert at this duckin' bit! We had to all pull together to survive! (p.37)

She talks about her children with such love - none are rich or famous but each is special.

The bearing of my kids after all was the most importnt thing that ever happened to me. (p.23)

Anybody who can raise nine children on her own, wait ten years for housing commission and stick it out for nine years in Green Valley, isolated from family, friends and support networks is a mighty person. Ruby wouldn't want to be put on a pedestal by anybody. Most of us don't.

She finishes her story this way:

Back at the hostel that night I was thinking that my birthday, 26 January (which us Abos call shame day cause it was the day our land was taken over by the colonists in 1788), had turned out to be the best birthday I ever had in my life. I'll have to send all my kids a little thank you card, for making it so special, and show them my appreciation. Now you know why I wouldn't change places with the Queen of England, for what I've got in my own backyard, eh! (p.111)

Her Excellency Lady Helen Deane,
(in her first major speech since moving into Government House)

The road to reconciliation is a very difficult one. But it is not closed. Clearly, however, we will not reach its end unless and until there exists the necessary level of mutual tolerance, understanding and respect.

We can help reach that level of mutual tolerance, understanding and respect through communication between indeigenous and non-indegenous women.

In my case, it has largely flowed from what I have learnt and am continuing to learn of the history, the problems and the hopes of indigenous people, especially the women.

Until I moved with my husband to the Government House 16 months ago, I was like most Australian women in that I'd had very little contact with indigenous women. By and large, I suppose I was affectged by the same kinds of uncomforatable stereotypes and images that influence many other Australians... I have learnt many things... Among them is that a major obstacle to reconcilliation is reconciliation is apprehension and reluctance bout face-toface communication.

...So I have become increasingly conscious, through communication and listening to hte stories of Aboriginal women, that their concerns and aspirations are very similar to my own.

What indigenous women want for their families and communities--good health, effective education, a minimum standard of housing, safety, self-respect, a sense of place and purpose--is very much the same as what I want for my own family and for those who are close to me.

The erosion of indigenous culture, in many cases, has left women picking up the peices of their communities--taking on key roles, mostly unpaid, as carers, cousellors, organisers and advocates.

They aspire, like all women, to fill equality of opportunity, to be treated with respect and protected from exploitation and violence and to have the diversity of theri roles and responsibilities recognised and valued.

The written history of our nation has been largely silent on the relationship between non-indigenous and indegenous women, The stroy of that relationship is ot a happy one.

Thus, it was often women who implementedthe policies, often tragically well-intentioned, that separated Aboriginal children from their families. More generally, one must, looking back, express regret that more women did not actively oppose or speak out against so many other things which were done to indigenous people over so many years.

It's not that we non-indigenous women haven'T or hadn(t heard the statistics. But hearing the women's stories face-to-face transforms those statistics from empty figures into a human reality.

We women and our organizations must seize and take advantage of the present widely-felt longing for true reconciliation. The communication must continue and the stories must be told. We must identify with one another. We must reach a consensus about the nature and extent of indigenous disadvantage and establish an effective partnership and effective programs to address and resolve them. If we do these things, the voices of women, and there are enough of us, will make a difference...

I wish to close with an act of Reconciliation and in telling the other stories of Australia share with you, conference delegates two other flags of Australia.

The flag of the peoples of the Torres Strait:
Blue for the water
Black for the people
A traditional headdress
Five pointed white star representing the five regions of the Torres Strait

The Aboriginal flag:
Black for the people
Red for the land and the blood that has been shed on it and gold representing the sun and the hope of a new day and s better future

Thank you for coming on this journey with me.

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