Remoteness obscures tragedy of outback issues

30 Apr 2008

By The Record

By Paul Gray
A nationwide crisis in family and social values is engulfing Aboriginal children, as new evidence emerges of the prostitution of teenage girls in remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
A north Queensland doctor who has worked for years in remote communities, Dr Lara Wieland, told The Record last week that she believes the collapse of social norms and morals is causing problems in all societies, not just Aboriginal ones.
But because of the obvious problems of dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities, the problem is showing up most dramatically there.
Dr Wieland’s comments come in the wake of new allegations in the media last week that a rampant sex trade in Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory is continuing unabated.
This is despite a much-hyped multi-million dollar intervention by the Federal Government into the Territory’s remote indigenous communities last year.
Melbourne’s The Age newspaper said Aboriginal girls between 12 and 15 are being prostituted in exchange for alcohol, cash, taxi-rides and other goods, and that Aboriginal leaders at Nhulunbuy have reportedly asked police to investigate a group of men they say have been abusing girls for years.
Among those who are angriest about the alleged sex trade is respected elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the former Australian of the Year and leader of the Northern Land Council.
“Everybody here knows what has been going on and the time has come for us to put an end to this once and for all,” Mr Yunupingu told the newspaper.
He said there were seven young girls at nhulunbuy who are ready to give evidence to police.
Dr Lara Wieland, who has worked for eight years with indigenous people around Cape York peninsula in Queensland, is a commentator with close working knowledge of problems of abuse and dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities
In the case of these latest reports from the Northern Territory, Dr Wieland told The Record, we are seeing white Australian men who are probably “average working guys” – and not necessarily participants in an evil pedophile ring – who are “buying sex off young girls.”
“Then you have young Aboriginal girls who are probably vulnerable to these things because of their addictions and trauma and family and social breakdown in their communities,” she said.
Dr Wieland said this sort of phenomenon is becoming more widespread. She said she suspects that across Australia, more white girls who are vulnerable because of dysfunctional backgrounds are also becoming in this kind of prostitution “trade.”
However, because of the particular problems of Aboriginal communities, the phenomenon is coming to light more regularly there than elsewhere, Dr Wieland suggests.
“Perhaps there are just more Aboriginal girls in this category in these places.”
Dr Wieland says she thinks the breakdown of family and moral standards, and an increase in “so-called freedoms” in these areas have “led us all down a destructive path.”
She adds: “I actually think that it is some Aboriginal people who recognize this more than we do.”
In February, Dr Wieland called for Australia to “break the cycle of dysunction” afflicting Aboriginal people.
She said during  her years of working in the outback she has witnessed a rapid and tragic decline in the environment that Aboriginal children live in.
She described regular acts of sodomy and other sexual abuses perpetrated on young children by older ones, the widespread use of pornography and a prevalence of sexually transmitted disease.
Dr Wieland said there is little concept of what most Australians would consider “good parenting,” in most households in these communities.
Children are regularly not fed or cared for properly, and that parents who were abused themselves as children now abuse their own, apparently unaware of the wrongness of their actions.
She said these problems were compounded by illiteracy and poor levels of education.
Meanwhile a report put out last week by the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney also highlighted woeful shortcomings in education for remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
The report claimed that most indigenous primary school leavers, particularly in remote areas, are only at Year 1 level, and their schooling has effectively not been extended to secondary school.
The paper’s author, Prof Helen Hughes, says ineffective curriculums and poor teaching have led to many Aboriginal students sitting in school for years without learning anything.
She says the Territory’s Aboriginal schools, known as Learning Centres and Community Education Centres, frequently include secondary classes but most have not been equipped to the standard of modern primary schools.
The Centres frequently lack ablution blocks and electricity connections, have inadequate classroom space and lack teaching equipment and materials such as books, paper and writing and drawing materials, Prof Hughes reports.
The study, titled Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory, says the Learning Centres do not follow mainstream curriculums and children are initially taught in a vernacular language.
“Elementary addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division drills are not taught in maths classes. Children are not being taught history, geography or science.”
Prof Hughes also says Aboriginal schools rely heavily on teachers’ aides who are not articulate or literate in English and lack the qualifications to be an Assistant Teacher. “These Teachers’ Aides are supported by qualified teachers who drive in or fly in to communities. This inefficient system benefits Homeland Association management as the teachers’ airfares are a source of income.”