Strength in sisterhood: empowering Aboriginal women
More than one-third of female prisoners in Australia are Indigenous, despite only comprising around 1.5 per cent of the nation’s adult population. Imprisonment represents a profound threat to their wellbeing, compounding intergenerational trauma and harm and making it tough to break free from the cycle.
The impact reaches deeply into families and communities, with eighty per cent of incarcerated women also mothers or carers to children or sick or elderly family members. The issues are systemic, embedded and exceedingly complex, but two UTS researchers are taking real steps to turn the tide.
UTS Law Associate Professor Thalia Anthony and Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt of Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research are the minds behind sista2sista, a unique initiative designed to support and empower Indigenous women in relation to penal interventions.
sista2sista is a group of Indigenous women who represent a cross-section of services and have lived experience in the criminal justice system. Holding its inaugural meeting at Redfern Community Centre in September 2016, what began as a research advisory group on how Indigenous women’s voices can be better heard in the criminal justice system quickly grew into a peer-to-peer support group.
“It provides a safe space for Indigenous women to ‘yarn’– a form of Indigenous communication and knowledge-sharing based on respectful relationships,” Dr Anthony explains.
“In this way, we challenged the institutionalised model of ‘fixing’ Indigenous people through state interventions and instead sought to strengthen Indigenous women’s social, cultural and emotional wellbeing through relationships.”
The collective meets regularly to discuss how they can help Aboriginal women both on the inside and in their transition to the outside, and have developed outreach tools including a brochure for Aboriginal women in prisons to invite them into the group when they leave and access valuable support and community services.
Through sista2sista and its member organisations from with Indigenous communities, Anthony and Behrendt have provided support spanning a diversity of areas, from advocating for better housing, health and access to welfare, to helping with the restoration of children on child protection and case orders and assisting with sentencing submissions. Crucially, the program’s focus on empowering these women contributes to their wellbeing and that of their families and reduces the likelihood of them returning to prison.
The Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2017 Inquiry into Rates of Indigenous Incarceration highlighted the substantial challenges faced by Indigenous women – many of whom have experienced physical and sexual violence, housing insecurity, poverty, mental illness and the effects of trauma – both during and after incarceration. In a criminal justice space overwhelmingly focused on mainstream non-Aboriginal services, and where what does exist is largely tailored to men, the initiative is a crucial step in providing the support Indigenous women need to change their futures.
Anthony and Behrendt received a High Commendation for the Jo Wilton Memorial Award for Women at the UTS Human Rights Awards in 2018 for the sista2sista program, which will also guide the research trajectory of Anthony and Behrendt’s Australian Research Council-funded project, ‘Where are the Indigenous Women in Criminal Sentencing?’.
The potential to mitigate recurring trauma is significant. Through influencing improvements in criminal justice processes and enhancing the perceptions of the unique experiences of Indigenous women among lawyers, community corrections staff and the judiciary, the system can ask better questions, and open its mind to the stories behind criminal histories and options for community-based sentencing.
“We hope to generate alternatives to prison for Indigenous women that are centred on their strengths, connect them to their families and communities and enable them, where needed, to be on Country,” says Dr Anthony.
“Through our research, we also hope to challenge stereotypes and encourage the criminal justice system to rethink its punitive approach to Indigenous women by considering its devastating and harmful effects and healing trauma.”