Winsome Matthews was just 17 when the occasionally ugly reality of being an Aboriginal woman set in.
Her sister had given birth, and the new mother and father were drinking and celebrating when things turned violent: He wanted to go to a party. She was tired and didn't. So, with a crowd watching, he started the beating that ended her life.
"He might have hit her on the head a few times. She might have hit her head when she fell .... We don't know," Ms. Matthews says. "It was never reported to the police.... And my mother, who'd already raised all of us, was left with a three-day-old child."
That was more than two decades ago - the family recently celebrated that baby girl's 21st birthday. Yet, Matthews, who is now an outspoken activist, says she has only talked about the incident publicly once before, because "What happened to my sister is nothing compared to what goes on out there every day."
Abuse against Aboriginal women has been one of modern Australia's great taboo subjects. But since this past month, when allegations of rape were leveled against one of the indigenous community's senior political leaders, Australia has been engaged in the first broadly based, public discussion of a problem some believe threatens the survival of the world's oldest living culture.
Geoff Clark, chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the peak government body for indigenous Australians, denies the allegations made by four women, is unlikely to be charged, and has been cleared of rape charges before. But other male indigenous political leaders have been convicted of rape in the past.
That Aboriginal women have been suffering abuse at much higher rates than the community at large has been known by experts for some time. According to a 1994 study in Western Australia, Aboriginal women are 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than whites. Gordon Briscoe, a historian who specializes in Aboriginal health issues, says data from the late '70s shows Aboriginal women dying at the hands of those closest to them at an alarming rate.
But despite the evidence, many have long feared the issue could undermine Aboriginal leaders' primary push for an official apology for historical wrongs committed by white Australians. And many Aboriginal women now accuse male leaders of failing to act on the violence - because in many cases they are guilty of abuse themselves.
"If you have men who are perpetrators setting the agenda, then it's not going to be there at all," says Boni Robertson, the chairwoman of a government-funded task force that produced a 1999 report on violence in the state of Queensland's indigenous communities.
Adding to the veil of silence has been the pressure put on many women to stay quiet for fear of shaming their communities. In some remote areas, neighbors have beat women for turning in their abusers to police. The threat of sorcery also has been used to keep women silent.
For white anthropologists and health workers, other pressures have kept the issue hidden. Especially, they say, since the release of a 1997 government report on the "Stolen Generation." It detailed how allegations of abuse or neglect were used to justify government-sanctioned removal of Aboriginal children from their families, as part of since-abandoned assimilationist policies.
"White people are too frightened to say how it really is because they'll be branded as racists," says a counselor who works with Aboriginal women and asked not to be identified. "People are so bending over backwards to see things from a cultural point of view that they are attributing [abuse] to a traditional practice."
The accepted view is that the blame ultimately lies with white colonization and the oppression that followed. Australia's 400,000 indigenous people are the country's most downtrodden: They live lives that are on average 20 years shorter than their white counterparts'. They are more likely to be jailed, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be living in poverty or be alcoholics. Those factors conspire to deflate indigenous men's self-worth, experts say.
"If you're fed on a diet of alcoholism and poverty, then you've got a desperate recipe," says Ms. Robertson. "You can't divorce the oppression. You can't divorce the history of detention."
With some success, "tradition" has been used by Aboriginal men as a defense against criminal charges.
There are others, though, who argue the violence does have roots in tradition. Experts say, for example, that arranged marriages between girls and much older men still take place in some communities and can often be at the root of violence.
Academics who advocate the controversial tradition theory are often yelled down by colleagues. Joan Kimm, a research assistant at Melbourne's Monash University, has been accused of racism because of her claims that there is ample anthropological and historical evidence of things like ritualized rape. Ms. Kimm has repeatedly put off publishing her research because she was afraid of providing ammunition for far-right politicians advocating what she saw as anti-Aboriginal policies. "I felt in some ways that I was betraying Aboriginal people," she says.
While a large portion of white Australia is now working toward reconciliation with the indigenous population, and Aboriginal leaders are pushing for an apology for past wrongs and a treaty to codify it, Winsome Matthews says the plague of violence that killed her sister has more urgency. "Those are all things that need people power to succeed," she says. "It's no good if the people are imploding on themselves and killing themselves off."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor