Granny patrol in the Australian outback

A first-of-its-kind program lets grandmothers fight crime in their Aboriginal community.

It's pension day in this remote Aboriginal outpost, and that normally means trouble.

But the road to the nearest big town has been cut off by a flood, so the usual convoy of cars hasn't been able to make the trip out for alcohol.

"No grog tonight," says Jillie Nakamarra, shining a flashlight out the pickup-truck window at the dilapidated houses passing by. "It's very quiet."

Welcome to neighborhood watch, Aboriginal style.

Founded in 1991 by Mrs. Nakamarra and other female elders in this community of about 1,000 on the edge of central Australia's Tanami Desert, the Yuendumu Night Patrol has become an example for women in outback Aboriginal communities, offering a way they can tackle the myriad issues facing them.

Tonight in Yuendumu, there's a disco at the youth center. A few dozen boys are gathered outside as music blares from the hall behind them.

The night patrol, which has eight core members and about a dozen other part-time volunteers (all women), claims to be the first of its kind in Australia. Funded in part by the government's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, it has been replicated in other communities and is still used as a model.

The women take part in training programs in other communities and outposts to occasionally put their mixture of coaxing and haranguing into practice, particularly during popular Aboriginal sports festivals.

The problems in Yuendumu - mainly related to alcohol - are not unlike those in many Aboriginal communities in the so-called "red center," after the color of the earth in much of central Australia.

The country's 400,000 Aborigines have higher rates of alcohol abuse than the rest of the population. That, in turn, contributes to higher rates of domestic abuse, experts say. Petrol (gasoline) sniffing among young Aborigines is also an enduring problem in remote areas.

Such challenges, combined with a high rate of dependence on welfare, often squalid living conditions, and occasional injections of cash from mining royalties can be a volatile mix.

"The things the Aboriginal people have to put up with in this community wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else, even in a third-world country," says Helen Justice, the coordinator of the Yuendumu Women's Center, from which the night patrol operates.

Things have improved in Yuendumu in the past decade, thanks at least in part to the work of the night patrol. Accurate statistics aren't available, but people in the community say the change is easy to measure.

"It's much better," says Wendy Baarda, a teacher who has lived in Yuendumu since 1973. "There's still drinking. But I don't think there is still the same violence that there once was. They're important, those old ladies."

The police agree. Mal Guerin, the officer in charge of the police contingent here, says rates of assault and other crimes have dipped over the past decade. The night patrol are "like our eyes in the community," says Mr. Guerin. "We can't be there all the time."

What is clearly crucial to the night patrol's success is that its members are women, and that they are elderly - all of the core members are in their 70s or older. There was a brief attempt to do something similar with men. But "they never did it properly," Nakamarra says. "They used to join in the drinking."

As elders, the women command respect. Their power, Ms. Justice says, lies partly with their ability as grandmothers to shame the often-male, and inevitably younger, drinkers.

Because of their standing, the women also fill an important gap between the police, the judicial system in Alice Springs - the central Australian desert town 180 miles away to the southeast - and the community.

Traditional Aboriginal law does not have official recognition under Australian law. However, there have been cases in Australia - as in the US - where indigenous law is allowed to hold sway. And in remote outposts like Yuendumu, the current practice is often to allow Aborigines to sort out problems under their own traditions before criminal cases are launched.

For instance, says Justice, under Aboriginal law domestic abuse cases are a matter to be resolved by a couple's families, and the night patrol keeps an eye on any such negotiations.

ON this night, the biggest problem is the disco at the youth center. It has gone on too long for a Thursday, say patrol members.

The truck pulls up outside the dingy, cinder-block building and Nakamarra wanders inside. On the wall at one end of the room is the graffiti scrawl "2pac 4 eva," a reference to slain American rap artist Tupac Shakur.

Nakamarra walks up to the DJ booth and rattles the mesh. The center's manager comes to the window and Nakamarra launches a stream of orders at him in her native Warlpiri. There is a brief negotiation and Nakamarra walks away, apparently content.

"I told him they can play four more songs," she explains curtly. "The children have school tomorrow."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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