Family Violence in Indigenous Australian Communities: Literature Review
The issue of family violence is one of the key concerns impacting negatively on Indigenous communities of Australia. I will review available literature on the issue, identifying factors contributing to the same; outlining a framework for understanding why the problem has continued to persist despite the intensive government scrutiny and high level of public awareness; and bringing out the key knowledge gaps in literature. I reckon that intervention policies have time and time again been developed on the basis of a liberal feminist approach that overlooks the Indigenous communities' perspectives on the concept of family violence; and as expected, the policies have repeatedly failed (Campion, et al., 2007). This review draws from this basis, and highlights the importance of adopting a context-based primary prevention framework focusing on solutions, rather than on the quantitative cause-and-effect aspects of the issue.
Statement of the Problem
The term 'Indigenous family violence' describes the range of violent acts occurring in Indigenous communities, including economic, psychological, cultural, spiritual, social, sexual, emotional, and physical abuses perpetrated within community relationships, kinship networks, and extended families (Cripps & Davis, 2012). Whilst the specific rates of family violence reports vary across studies, all evidence points to higher rates of violence amongst Indigenous communities (AHRC, 2003; Bryant & Willis, 2008; Taylor et al., 2004; Alford & Croucher, 2011; Western Australia State Government, 2002)
A survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) pointed out that 13.3 out of every 1000 Indigenous people admitted to hospital were subjects of assault, compared to a dismal 1 out of every 1000 for the non-Indigenous group (AHRC, 2003). According to the data, Indigenous people are victimized at a rate that happens to be two times (or perhaps more) higher than that of non-Indigenous people. A 2006 report by Carrington and Phillips to the Parliament of Australia places the rate of violent victimization of Indigenous women at 40 times that of their non-Indigenous counterparts. Disturbingly, despite their small numbers, Indigenous people make up almost a quarter of the prison population, 20% of persons convicted of sexual assault, and more than 40% of persons convicted for acts intended to cause harm or injury (Bryant & Willis, 2008)
Bryant and Willis (2008) integrate the findings of a number of studies and surveys and conclude that Indigenous children, when compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, are four times more likely to "be the subject of a substantiated child protection notification of abuse or neglect" (p. vii). However, this may not be the only concern causing children rights organizations' officials sleepless nights -- there have been numerous reports of violence emerging in adolescence amongst Indigenous people; a trend that researchers have linked to observational learning - children imitating habits of violence from either their parents or aggressors within the community; and then carrying the same through the intermediate stages of development into adulthood due to the lack of emotional and social tuning (VicHealth, 2007; Kowanko, et al., 2009; Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Forum, 2009). Traditional institutions that were originally meant to instill responsibility in youths and teenagers and prepare them socially and emotionally for the challenges of adulthood have gradually lost their significance; and the researcher reckons that towards this end, there is need to intervene early to reduce Indigenous children's exposure to family violence, and get them to change their pathways so as to avoid a generational carry-over of family violence.
Contributors: Risk Factors
According to the Victoria State Government (2010), misinterpretation of customary law has contributed significantly to family violence among Indigenous people. Bartels (2010) further attributes family violence among Indigenous communities to a confluence of risk factors relating to social and economic disadvantage, including availability of financial resources, community and family functionality, social stressors of living in a remote environment, and alcohol/substance abuse. Morgan and Chadwick's (2009) view mirrors this; they express that Indigenous persons have a significantly high likelihood of being victims of threats/violence if they have financial difficulties, have experienced a high number of recent stressors, have some form of disability, have been separated from their family, and if they are young.
Bryant and Willis (2008) adopt a similar view, but go further to subdivide the prominent risk factors into three major categories -- socio-demographic variables (gender and age of victim); measures of community, family, and individual functionality (drug use, stressors,...
Multivariate analysis revealed a positive correlation between violent behavior and variables related to functionality and resource availability. The study further established that Indigenous females are victimized at a higher rate than Indigenous males; and that "young people in their mid-teens and mid-twenties, irrespective of their ethnicity face a higher risk of violent victimization" (Bryant & Willis, 2008, p. vii). The age-linked victimization patterns for Indigenous groups relate closely to those of non-Indigenous communities, but are shifted slightly to younger ages due to the group's lower age profile attributable to poor health outcomes (Ypinazar et al., 2007; Wundersitz, 2010; Perkins, et al.,. 1994).
Alcohol is put forth as a major contributor to family violence and victimization. According to Bryant and Willis (2008), the probability of an Indigenous person being subject to assault increases with increasing alcohol risk behavior. They place the figures at 23% for persons with low risk alcohol consumption trends, and 42% for persons with high-risk alcohol behavior. These findings mirror those of Richards (2011), who found that almost 70% of Indigenous homicides occur in situations where both the offender and victim are drinking. Cripps (2006), however, cautions against singling out one factor as the cause of Indigenous family violence; and instead proposes a structural framework in which all factors interplay on level ground to give rise to family violence
Impact on Children
A report by the 2009 edition of the annual Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Forum indicates that children are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior in those instances where their exposure to the same has been within the family unit. Towards this end, the social learning theory - which posits that people learn through observing the outcomes, attitudes, and behaviors of others - has been selected as the theoretical framework for this program. The underlying presupposition of this perspective is that violence of a physical nature amongst older members of a familial unit provides a likely model for children to not only learn, but also begin to perceive the same as appropriate (Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Forum, 2009). This implies that an aggressive "father may positively reinforce early signs of violent behavior not only by exposing individuals to violence, but by teaching approval for the use of violence" (Indigenous Family Violence Prevention Forum, 2009, p. 6).
As mentioned earlier on, the dwindling significance of traditional institutions that were originally meant to tune the emotional and social frameworks of children predisposed to unfavorable conditions so that they do not fall prey to vicarious reinforcement has aggravated the issue of aggression amongst Indigenous people. This project, therefore, identifies the need to develop an intervention program that focuses on reducing Indigenous people exposure to family violence, and hence correcting their pathways through behavioral reinforcement.
Indigenous Communities' Empowerment
Three fundamental contributors to Indigenous family violence can be identified from literature -- misinterpretation of customary law, uncontrolled inter-generational influences, and the effects of dispossession and colonization. Any primary intervention strategy ought to address the structural, socio-cultural, behavioral, and social elements underlying the aforementioned causal elements.
The Torres Strait Islander Commission (2006) advocates for the development of primary intervention strategies geared at improving Indigenous people's interpretation of customary law. This project, however, adopts Wundersitz's (2006) framework, which advocates for a primary intervention mechanism aimed at empowering Indigenous communities and providing leverage for the social disparities and economic disadvantages they face as a result of dispossession and colonization. The researcher reckons that bettering the economic and social status of Indigenous people is the best way to reduce Indigenous family violence.
Critique of Previous Methods
The Australian Human Rights Commission (2003) expresses that the reason interventions have repeatedly failed, and the issue of family violence remained persistent among this group is that policy makers have time and time again overlooked the Indigenous communities' perspectives on the concept of family violence; and have instead increasingly relied on a liberal feminist framework which builds on encouraging women to maintain and show their equality through their own choices and actions, without first understanding the community's cultural, historical, and definitive perspectives regarding the place of women. This has often had the result of making Indigenous men rebellious, and even more aggressive towards their women, in an attempt to cement their place as the head of the family.
Good Practice Strategies for Effective Intervention
The Australian Commission on Human Rights (2003) suggests a set of good practice strategies for developing an effective primary intervention program. Two of these -- creating a coordinated, holistic approach; and raising the level of education, information,…
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Wundersitz, J. (2010). Indigenous Perpetrators of Violence: Prevalence and Risk Factors for Reoffending. Australian Institute of Criminology Reports: Research and Public Policy Series 105. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications
Ypinazar, V., Margolis, S., Haswell-Elkins, M.R. & Tsey, K. (2007). Indigenous Australians' Understandings Regarding Mental Health and Disorders: a Meta-Synthesis of the Literature. Australia-New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 41(6), 467-478.
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