Study redefines gender policy for Aboriginal Australians


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“Gender should be a key consideration of future policies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples,” a new report argues.

According to the Aboriginal Gender Study — conducted by the Aboriginal Health Council South Australia (AHCSA), the “impacts of public policy are often gendered, and have the potential to either perpetuate inequality or advance gender equity”.

AHCSA investigated contemporary understandings of gender, gender roles, and gender equity in three Aboriginal communities in South Australia.

They used culturally safe and relevant approaches and applied Indigenous research methodologies which defined Aboriginal people as experts in their own lives.

Yarning circles were held with 49 community members between 2017 and 2018, across a range of age and gender identities in metropolitan and regional sites.

Understandings of gender were diverse and have changed through generations, the report said. The understandings ranged from biological to a complex social and cultural concept.

The study also found that within the communities:

  • Strong Aboriginal men were defined by their knowledge of culture and identity, and their ability to share it with family and community. ‘Good fathers’, ‘hard workers’, and ‘providers’ were also regarded as strong men.
  • Strong Aboriginal women were seen as influential and connected to culture. They self-identified as resilient and survivors, particularly older women.
  • Strong cultural identity was defined in terms of reciprocity, such as sharing resources, caring for family and giving back to the community.
  • Parents, community members and peers had the strongest influence over children and young people when learning about gender roles and norms.
  • Both men and women were seen as nurturers in the family. However, some women thought most family responsibilities were held by women, such as child rearing, emotional support and domestic duties. Young men and some older women viewed child rearing as shared.
  • Connection to family and culture was regarded important to life and integral to resilience. Loss of connections and limited support networks were difficult for men and women. Men were thought to have less support, and government policies, intergenerational trauma and ongoing effects of colonisation cause their loss of place in the community.
  • Expression of emotions was gendered, and difficult for men.
  • Experiences of racism were commonly reported and reflected gendered stereotypes, transphobia and homophobia within and outside of the community.
  • The language around ‘gender equity’ was rarely used, but its principles were widely accepted. For example, when discussing fairness they spoke of equal partnerships and shared responsibilities. Many agreed these responsibilities may differ for women and men. Reciprocity plays a key role in many Aboriginal cultures and value systems, and instilling responsibility from an early age is important. This contrasts with Western understandings of gender equity, which focus on individual rights to power, resources, and employment issues, the report said.
  • Gender equity appeared to only be aspirational at times. There were contradictory findings on shared family roles, for example.

Suggestions for researchers and policymakers

Strategies to attain gender equity and self-determination must be developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, the report said.

This recognises that “Aboriginal people often face many forms of marginalisation and discrimination that intersect and can multiply inequity”.

Health and community services should incorporate Aboriginal LGBTQ awareness training, designed and delivered by Aboriginal people, to provide information and support in a safe and inclusive environment.

Community services and spaces for Aboriginal men to safely discuss emotions and seek support must be expanded. This includes services that are built on a foundation of strengths, rather than addiction or grief, to promote connections between men and community.

Existing strategies addressing family violence in communities must acknowledge the unique experiences of LGBTQ people.

Services and safe spaces for Aboriginal LGBTQ people to connect in the community are needed to reduce isolation, counteract homophobia and promote cultural connections.

Gendered experiences should be considered in policy and programs that aim to improve the health, social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Community awareness strategies developed with Aboriginal people are needed to promote understanding of gender influence, counteract racial and gender stereotypes, and promote positive Aboriginal male, female and gender diverse role models. These are needed for Aboriginal and non-Indigenous communities, the report said.

The following needs further research:

  • Perceived gender roles, expression and equity, undertaken as a national research project. It should be inclusive of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, such as Elders, LGBTQ peoples and different language groups, to reflect diverse experiences.
  • Gendered, cultural and collective aspects of Aboriginal resilience, such as self-care tools, engagement of men and women in cultural revitalisation and the connections between individual and community resilience.
  • Raising awareness of the experiences and needs of LGBTQ peoples, and their contribution to culture and community.

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