“Get Angry”: Indigenous Women and Femicide

By Jessica Sutton.

Content Warning: This article contains graphic details which may be disturbing.

Last week, the body of an 18-year-old aboriginal girl was found in a wheelie bin in Western Australia.[1] The brief lines of the media articles are painfully familiar for those who keep an eye out for cases of femicide. Another man “who was known to the victim”. Another “history of relationship violence”. But one aspect of the case seems to continually escape media attention: intimate partner femicide, which is inescapably gendered, is disproportionately inflicted on indigenous women. A 2011 report showed that Aboriginal women are approximately seven times more likely to be murdered than white women in Australia.[2] This death last week follows a series of others in Australia in which the families of murdered Aboriginal women have been denied justice.

An unidentified Aboriginal woman in Queensland was murdered last year when her partner attacked her with a saw, raped her as she lay bleeding, and then left her to die. The perpetrator was out on parole for having previously attacked his partner with a knife.[3] Another unidentified Aboriginal woman was stabbed to death by her partner in Melbourne in February of this year. Her three children witnessed her agonising death.[4]

And the indignities do not stop at horrifically high femicide rates for indigenous women. 10 months after Kwementyaye McCormack was fatally stabbed by her husband and left to bleed to death in her own home, no charges had been laid. Ms McCormack had been repeatedly abused by her partner and hospitalised on multiple occasions. It is understood that the Police were not seeking any other suspects in connection with her death. Yet, only once her family gained advocacy support from women’s shelter groups in the area, and brought the incident to media attention, was there any attempt to proactively investigate Ms McCormack’s death. The Police Commissioner begrudgingly admitted “we have a lot of areas to improve”.[5]

Women die in horrific circumstances daily. Yet, aboriginal women, and indigenous women generally, suffer far higher rates of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and generic violent assault than other women.[6] The sickening pattern is even more evident in Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand, where the rates of violence against women are particularly high.

The key violence experienced by the majority of these women, and where we tend to see the most depraved acts of femicide, is in the context of intimate partner violence. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a subset of domestic violence, where women make up the vast majority of victims.[7] The World Health Organisation defines IPV as “any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship”.[8] IPV therefore is an umbrella term which covers psychological violence, coercive control, beatings, rape, and femicide within relationships. Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour designed to isolate, frighten, and psychologically harm victims, and is often a precursor to physical violence and femicide. [9] Globally, 30,000 women lost their lives to intimate partner femicide in 2017.[10]

New Zealand is the developed country which has the highest rates of violence against women, according to a UNIFEM study.[11] The statistics are truly shocking, considering New Zealand’s reputation as a country of peace, plenty, and equality, where our women hold positions of power, and are free to choose their own destinies. Under this facade, 55 per cent of New Zealand women have experienced physical or psychological IPV in their lifetime.[12] A 2010 study found that nearly 90% of women who have experienced IPV in their lifetime did not report this to the Police.[13] 63 New Zealand women died from IPV between 2009 and 2015, with men making up 98 per cent of predominant aggressors in the relationship.[14]

The current yearly average of women killed by intimate partners is 14 deaths, although in 2019 the number ballooned to over 20. The majority of these victims were Māori women. Māori women are approximately three times more likely to be victims of IPV and femicide than other New Zealand women.[15] Yet, when reaching out for help, Maori women are less likely to be believed when reporting IPV, and contend with racism as well as misogyny in the courtroom.

Meanwhile, rates of indigenous femicide in Canada have reached epidemic proportions, with activists terming the killings a “Canadian Genocide”. More than 4,000 indigenous women and girls have been murdered or have disappeared in Canada over the last three decades according to the latest report by the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. Not only was male violence raised and condemned, but the National Inquiry also reinforced that the responsibility lay with “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies”.[16]

In Mexico, 3,578 femicides occurred in 2015-2019, with indigenous women and girls making up a large percentage of those killed. Activists note that indigenous women and girls are more vulnerable to gender-based violence because of poor socio-economic conditions and racist legal systems which deny them protection.[17] Although Mexico does at least recognise the crime of femicide in its law (making its law far more progressive than New Zealand’s), prosecutions are minimal, and convictions are pitifully rare, particularly if the crime involves an indigenous female victim.[18]

Each of these countries have in common a bloody history of colonialism perpetuated by racist law enforcement, studiously inept legal systems, and a culture of habituated apathy to violence against women, particularly when indigenous women are involved. Beautiful white women, at the very least, may be subject to media attention and national mourning due to what has been termed ‘missing white woman syndrome’. A 2010 study on missing children showed that almost 80% of media coverage went to cases involving white children.[19] Only 20% of media attention went to children of colour who were victims of crime. The same principle applies to white women versus indigenous women in the media. As a society, we psychologically decide who is vulnerable and worthy of our sympathy by reference to racist stereotypes. The sweet, passive, helpless white woman, is our paradigm of a victim. The media knows that the public will identify with her. She is “like us”.

If we were to compare the murder of Grace Millane and the media coverage her death received, to the attention given to Māori femicide victims in the same year such as Lynace Parakuka[20] or Aroha Kerehoma,[21] we see a marked difference. There is no sense in trying to distinguish them based on the severity or gruesome nature of these crimes, they are all atrocities. It is the context of intimate partner violence, and the added layer of the victim being Māori, which seems to strip the case of any value for the media. The nasty intersection of racism and misogyny results in the murders of white women being sensationalised and sexualised, while our country seems to turn a collective blind eye to murders of indigenous women.

Although every femicide case involves a horrible, callous loss of life, femicides involving white women at least gain more media and law enforcement attention, meaning the cases are more likely to be solved. On the other hand, missing and murdered indigenous women are presented as “not our problem”. Their lonely, painful, and unspeakable deaths, perpetrated by men who claim to love them, are tucked away from our view unless we go looking for them. Media articles are brief and impersonal. Families are denied justice. Often perpetrators walk free. And then more women die.

We don’t yet know the name of the girl who died last week. I am angry that I don’t know her name. I am angry that all I know is the utter disrespect shown to her, to the point that she was considered unworthy of life. I am angry that all I know is that yesterday, Mother’s Day, her two small children woke up without a mother. I am angry for all the unseen indigenous women who die in a similar way because our governments don’t care enough to prevent their deaths, or even adequately grieve for them.

In countries which have inflicted colonial violence on indigenous women and girls, and continue to perpetuate neo-colonial violence through State violence and apathy, these deaths are more than a tragedy, they are an outcome of active fostering of racism and misogyny, to which anger is the only rational response.[22]

To our white readers, I hope what happens to these women makes you angry. I hope you talk to someone about it, someone who didn’t know how frightening the world is for indigenous women. Get them angry. Get your representatives angry. Use your privilege to make change. And to indigenous women, and particularly the families of femicide victims, we hear you, we are with you, and we love you.

“That is what I am looking for— not for my sister-in-law now, because no one can harm her, but that my daughter, my granddaughter, my great-granddaughters can walk the streets in safety, my nieces, that no harm can come to them. We must stand up for justice for these women that have walked before us.” – Frances Neumann, sister-in-law of femicide victim Mary Johns.[23]

[1] https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2020/05/06/body-aboriginal-mother-found-inside-wheelie-bin-was-north?fbclid=IwAR1bnmSPzqPxRQHlnCrxmxPITkxxE_5CCA3VEAyFnPOeazj5_B1zjq-m2Wk

[2] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-503-x/2010001/article/11442-eng.pdf

[3] https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/i-think-i-killed-my-girlfriend-woman-hacked-to-death-with-saw-20190610-p51w4d.html

[4] https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2020/02/10/melbourne-mum-allegedly-stabbed-death-front-children

[5] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-17/relatives-of-aboriginal-woman-stabbed-want-answers/8711510

[6] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13691058.2018.1519117

[7] Women make up 82 per cent of intimate partner violence victims. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Study on Homicide: Gender-Related Killing of Women and Girls (UNODC, 2018) at 11.

[8] World Health Organisation Understanding and Addressing Violence Against Women: Intimate Partner Violence (World Health Organisation, Pan American Health Organisation, 2017) at 2.

[9] Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour designed to isolate, frighten, and psychologically harm victims. See Walklate and Fitz-Gibbon “The Criminalisation of Coercive Control: The Power of Law?” 8(4) IJCJ&SD 94 at 99–101.

[10] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Study on Homicide: Gender-Related Killing of Women and Girls (UNODC, 2018) at 10.

[11] UN Women Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice (UNIFEM, 2011–2012) at 134–135.

[12] New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse Data Summaries: Snapshot June 2017 (NZFVC, 2017) at 1.

[13] Fanslow and Robinson “Help-Seeking Behaviours and Reasons for Help-Seeking Reported by Representative Sample of Women Victims of Intimate Partner Violence in New Zealand” (2010) 25(5) J of Interpersonal Violence 929 at 936.

[14] Family Violence Death Review Committee Fifth Report Data: January 2009 to December 2015 (NZFVC, 2017) at 27.

[15] Rachel Simon-Kumar Ethnic Perspectives on Family Violence in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZFVC, 2019) at 10.

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/31/canada-missing-indigenous-women-cultural-genocide-government-report

[17] https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2019/12/23/activists-academics-say-indigenous-women-are-among-most-vulnerable-in-mexicos-femicide-crisis-amid-global-protests/

[18] https://www.culturalsurvival.org/sites/default/files/CEDAW_Report_Mexico_2018.pdf

[19] https://www.academia.edu/857391/Missing_Children_in_National_News_Coverage_Racial_and_Gender_Representations_of_Missing_Children_Cases

[20] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/116148066/murder-conviction-after-pregnant-mother-lynace-parakuka-beaten-to-death

[21] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/104091066/man-who-bashed-his-girlfriend-to-death-over-texts-gets-life–but-with-a-chance-of-parole-after-20-years

[22] https://www.sbs.com.au/language/english/audio/new-study-reveals-the-pattern-of-indigenous-femicide-and-the-killing-state

[23] The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Our Women and Girls Are Sacred (Interim Report, 2017).

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

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