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Nov 26, 2021 8:06:35 PM
Editorial Team

The Important Role of Indigenous Women and Girls When Caring for Country

By June Oscar AO, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner


The topic we have come together to discuss is of critical importance to everyone the world over. And we are not an exception. Australians face very serious consequences should humanity fail to act on climate change. 

We think of ourselves as the lucky country. But the truth is, that our fortune sits upon a knife edge. As we have all known for millennia, our ecosystems are fragile. It is up to us to keep country in balance. 

The science is clear. Anthropogenic global heating is real. Significant and threatening to our livelihood. That we must redirect our focus and investment into clean, renewable technologies and work with the international community to reach zero carbon as soon as possible should not be controversial. 

A situation in which we find ourselves in today is a product of a historical, continuing and systematic denial of inconvenient truths. The truth that humanity and the planet pay the price of negative industrial externalities of production and consumption that companies and customers have been allowed to shirk.  

The truth that is, it is the marginalized, those living in poverty, with the least access to sports, will bear the greatest burden. And the truth is that these people are rendered invisible, ignored and excluded from spaces of decision-making. For our own sake and the sake of future generations, our undivided focus must be on how we are to meet the environmental, economic, social, and cultural impacts of climate change. And unite in the truth that to deliver genuine sustainability, a real and permanent solution to our predicament, the only logical approach to climate change is systems change. 


"We think of ourselves as the lucky country. But the truth is, that our fortune sits upon a knife edge. As we have all known for millennia, our ecosystems are fragile. It is up to us to keep country in balance." 


Australian First Nations cultures are marked the oldest cultures on Earth. For millennia, we, this continent's first climate scientists, have existed as the human element of the lands and waters that defined our countries. 1788 mark the imposition of a system to these shores, which had not only threatened to eradicate the structures, values and knowledges of First Nations civilizations globally, but has gone on to put the very habitability of this planet in jeopardy. 

Under this introduced system, the impact of environmental degradation and climate change has a disproportionate effect on First Nations people who have lacked both the political power to push back and insulate themselves from such impacts. 

In December last year, I launched the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices Report), the first of its kind in Australia in 34 years, to represent the voices of First Nations women and girls as a collective.

The report would set out a high-level plan for structural change in response to First Nations women and girls concerns, aspirations and solutions. Provides a much needed First Nations gender lens to a broad range of issues and policy areas, including the economy and climate change. 

I spoke with over 2000 women and girls from over 50 locations all around the country. Women everywhere spoke to me of rumination of country and destruction of sacred sites. They told me of extreme weather changes, seasonal harvests thrown out of centuries old patterns and the worsening of floods and bushfires. 

The women of Saibai Island in the Torres Strait told me of rising sea levels and the threat it poses to the ongoing habitation of their ancestral land. The women of the Murray-Darling Basin told me of the terrible drought they endure. And my own people here in the Kimberly told me of their fears that their river systems will suffer the same fate.

Women decry that despite having had over two decades of economic growth, much of it at the expense of country, for at least a third of our people, life above the poverty line is out of reach. They were also clear that our economic empowerment cannot be just about fitting into the mainstream. It must be about designing our own economic face that can bring about a social, cultural and environmental future we all want. 

For our women and girls, decarbonization and decolonizations goes hand in hand. It is critical that women and girls be heard, responded to and empowered to participate in devising and driving solutions to the climate challenges we face. 

Women are calling for an equal say in decision-making on environmental issues. Increased funding for First Nations climate solutions initiated, owned and ran by our women and their communities, providing the opportunity to harness and nurture the unique strengths and knowledges they bring and acknowledgment of our girls’ realities within. Climate crisis and the provision of supportive social safety nets in response. 

The transition to resilient, sustainable and circular green economies presents an unparalleled opportunity for our peoples. To list just two of the many potential growth areas, renewable energy particularly solar on our desert country, could be a game changer. It may no longer be that we must rely on diesel generation in some of the world's premier locations for harnessing the power of the sun.  

Likewise, carbon farming through the emissions reduction scheme is a major opportunity and this nascent industry is already taking off. I note that we now have an indigenous carbon industry network. And just last month, Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation based in Derby, Western Australia, just West of Fitzroy Crossing, was awarded the 100 millionth carbon credits in Australia for their fire management work. 

Industries like these, women told me, have the potential to provide an economic base upon which the indigenous economy can multiply and all of life, human and non-humans can thrive. 

Since the launch of Wiyi Yani U Thangani, I have seen First Nations women from around the country use the report to take important steps towards their self-determination. Momentum is building towards the next step of the project where women can participate in a countrywide process where they, governments and other key stakeholders can come together to put in place a holistic framework for First Nations gender equality. 

The implementation of this framework will require the collective power that can only be harnessed through partnerships between private, public, and community organizations. And I am looking to organisations here with us today to step up. To partner with me, with our women and with our communities on this important work to create a fairer, greener and more prosperous future for us all.


The above is the full text of June Oscar's presentation at the Impact X Summit Sydney.  June Oscar is Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander and Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. To watch the video, click here

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