Working with women and children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities: What is family violence?
Family violence can be defined as any behaviour that causes harm to a person’s wellbeing or aims to control another family or community member. It differs from domestic violence in that it recognises a wider range or relationships.
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Family violence is an umbrella term encompassing all aspects of abuse including physical, sexual, emotional, financial, cultural and spiritual abuse. In most cases, family violence is a combination of any number of these different abuses. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander understandings of family violence recognise that perpetrators are not only intimate partners but can also include any familial or domestic relationship or other relationships of mutual obligation and support, including mothers, fathers, children, aunties, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers and cousins.
Family violence and Aboriginal women
Family violence is a significant issue in Australia across all communities. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities the incidence of family violence is disproportionately higher than in non-Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal women are 35 times more likely to suffer family violence and sustain serious injuries requiring hospitalisation, and 10 times more likely to die due to family violence, than non-Aboriginal women. There are a number of factors that contribute to this and understanding some of those factors will facilitate better service delivery to women who are experiencing family violence.
The causes of family violence
The causes of family violence in Aboriginal communities are complex – there is no single cause of family violence but rather a vast number of interrelated factors, both historically and contemporarily, that contribute. As a starting point, the history of the treatment of Aboriginal people is considered to be an underlying factor in the extent to which violence occurs in Aboriginal communities today. Moreover, to understand the high rates of family violence in Aboriginal communities, violence 'must be seen in the context of colonisation, disadvantage, oppression and marginalisation'. From an Aboriginal perspective, the manifestation of family violence is impacted by numerous systemic factors including dispossession from land and traditional culture, breakdown of community kinship systems, racism and vilification, entrenched poverty, overcrowding and inadequate housing, child removal policies and the loss of traditional Aboriginal female roles, male roles and status.
Government policies and trauma
Across Australia there have been many government policies that have had detrimental effects on Aboriginal communities – policies of community relocation, regulation of people’s movement, control of work and who one could marry are just a few of the many that continue to have impacts on Aboriginal communities. One set of government policies that are widely acknowledged as continuing to affect communities today are those that enabled the separation of Aboriginal children from their families over many generations. These policies continued into the early 1970s and it is estimated that, nationally, between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970.
Many people continue to experience trauma as a result of these policies.
Leading expert in trauma in Aboriginal communities, Judy Atkinson, tells us how trauma ‘trails’ of the Stolen Generations 'run across country and generations from original locations of violence as people moved away from the places of pain. These trauma trails carried fragmented, fractured people and families'. This trauma contributes to the way that violence is experienced in Aboriginal communities today.
Economic and social disadvantage
In addition to this trauma, Aboriginal people are much more likely to suffer from economic and social disadvantage, which includes welfare dependency, overcrowding in households, unemployment and homelessness. These conditions often generate feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness and despair in many people – coping mechanisms for this can include alcohol and other drug use. All of these factors work together to produce the particular circumstances and conditions of violence, and family violence, in Aboriginal communities.
The best-practice frameworks for providing support and assistance for Aboriginal women experiencing family violence often employ strategies that seek to provide a holistic response, incorporating an understanding of the conditions outlined above. Being aware of some of the experiences that Aboriginal people have in Australia, and the contributing factors that give rise to the prevalence of violence in the community, will better equip service providers and workers to provide support and assistance to Aboriginal women experiencing family violence.
This resource was developed by Elizabeth Hoffman House in collaboration with 1800RESPECT: http://www.ehhaws.org.au/.
 Herein the term ‘Aboriginal’ will be used and it means ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’.
 Catherine Humphreys, Domestic Violence and Child Protection: Challenging Directions for Practice, Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse, UNSW, 2007. p.24.
 ‘The National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009-2021, March 2009.
 Julie Oberin and Carolyn Frohmader, ‘Domestic and family violence: the latest research’ Out of the fire—domestic violence and homelessness, 2001, pp. 25–27, 26.
 Queensland Government, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Taskforce on Violence Report, 2000 and Victorian Government, Victorian Indigenous family violence taskforce – final report,, 2003.
 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997.
 Judy Atkinson, Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2002, p. 88.