Australia’s ‘Stolen Generations’ Not a Closed Chapter

An Aboriginal activist shouts slogans during a march in Brisbane, Australia, to stop the cycle of ‘stolen generations’ of Aboriginal children. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

An Aboriginal activist shouts slogans during a march in Brisbane, Australia, to stop the cycle of ‘stolen generations’ of Aboriginal children. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

By Silvia Boarini
BRISBANE, May 30 2015 (IPS)

Every year since 1998, Australia has marked ‘National Sorry Day’ on May 26, a day to remember the tens of thousands of indigenous children who, between the 1890s and 1970s, were forcibly removed from their communities by government authorities and placed into the care of white families or institutions to be assimilated into settler society.

‘National Sorry Day’ was set up following publication in 1997 of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report, the result of the first national inquiry which collected testimonies of ‘stolen’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and criticised the racist policies that allowed their systematic separation from their families.

The report played a central role in highlighting the plight of the so-called ‘stolen generations’ but it took a further 11 years until the government formally apologised for this ‘blemished chapter’ in Australia’s history. Only in 2008 did then Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd take the unprecedented step.“If you listen to someone from the older age group of stolen generations and the younger ones, the essence of what they say is the same. They never met mother, they never met grandma. They feel they don’t belong anywhere. How they feel inside is the same” – Auntie Hazel, founding member of Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR)

“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations (…) we say sorry,” he said on that occasion, before going on to envision a future in which “Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.”

Despite the apology, indigenous activists maintain that the ‘stolen generations’ is hardly an isolated chapter, let alone a closed one. “From the first few weeks of the invasion in the 1780s, they started removing our children and breaking down our families,” Sam Watson, a prominent Aboriginal leader and activist, told IPS. “And there are more children being removed now than ever before,” he added.

A recent report by the Government Productivity Commission, titled ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’, corroborates Watson’s interpretation. Indigenous children in out-of-home-care numbered 5,059 in June 2004 and 14,991 in June 2014. Barely five percent of the population under 17 is indigenous and yet, the report shows, 35 percent of all children removed are Aboriginal and Strait Islanders.

Mary Moore is founder of the Legislative Ethics Commission and has followed many cases of indigenous and non-indigenous child removal. She calls Australia the ‘child-stealing capital of the world’.

Many jobs depend on this ingrained practice and laws are passed to legitimise it, she says. “Removal and adoption are counter-intuitive strategies,” she told IPS. “They ignore the damaging lifelong consequences on children and they are far more costly than supporting families to remain united.”

Authorities justify removals in the name of ‘child protection’ and point to a context of ‘neglect’ and possible ‘risk’ as justifying factors. But the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander minority, overly represented at the bottom of most socio-economic indices, wants to know whose ‘neglect’ and racist policies have contributed to the widespread poverty, soaring incarceration numbers or high mental illness rates affecting their communities.

Although federal government talks of “closing the gap in indigenous disadvantage”, critics say that, often enough, in order to end ongoing state of neglect of Aboriginal communities, the only gap to bridge is between government’s promises and its actions.

In February 2015, at a speech marking the anniversary of the 2008 national apology, former Prime Minister Rudd, while not ignoring the staggering 400 percent increase in removal of indigenous children since 1998, called the crisis a “new type of stolen generation” rather than an unresolved and continuing crisis.

For Auntie Hazel, a founding member of the grassroots pressure group Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), there is no difference between what happened then and what happens now. “If you listen to someone from the older age group of stolen generations and the younger ones, the essence of what they say is the same,” she told IPS.

“They never met mother, they never met grandma. They feel they don’t belong anywhere. How they feel inside is the same,” she said.

GMAR was founded in New South Wales (NWS) in January 2014. NSW has the worst track record in child removals explains Auntie Hazel and GMAR was a way to say “enough is enough”. Just a year later, it had grown into a nationwide movement made up of self-organising charters throughout Australia’s affected communities.

The National Aboriginal Strategic Alliance to Bring the Children Home (NASA) now brings together GMAR and other like-minded groups. Protests, round-tables, marches and sit-ins have taken place across Australia and an international solidarity network is growing rapidly.

“We are all one and fighting for the same thing,” said Auntie Hazel. “It’s only when the little ones can nurture their spirit inside that they can become proud Aboriginal people.”

Ultimately, GMAR seeks to achieve self-determination in the care and protection of indigenous children and end the “power and control” that governments hold over the indigenous minority.

At the moment, many in the community complain, children are taken away with worrying ease, sometimes on the basis of unfounded and unchecked hearsay.

Anyone, Auntie Hazel explained, can call a hotline anonymously and say things about you. “Then maybe one day your child spends the lunch money on sweets so the teacher, a mandatory reporter, tells the Department of Community and Social Services (DOCS) that the child had no money for food. And so on until there is a case against you and you just don’t know.”

One of GMAR’s proposals to end this cycle is the establishment of an ‘Aboriginal expert committee’. Made up of health specialists, the committee will work with families deemed “at risk” by the DOCS before the children are removed.

Such a committee would have spared Albert Hartnett, one of GMAR’s male members, much anguish. In 2012 his 18-month-old daughter Stella was removed without warning. “DOCS officials escorted by police officers knocked on my door one Friday morning,” he recalls, still emotionally shaken.

“They said the child was at risk. They asked me ‘where is the dog?’ but I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. We had no dog.” Although DOCS did not find any of the “risks” mentioned in their documents, such as dog excrement on the floor, they still took the child.

Friday removals are a practice being fought by GMAR because it puts DOCS at an advantage by leaving families without support for a whole weekend. “They tell you ‘you are an unsuitable parent’ and it is easy to fall into a downward spiral,” Hartnett said.

With no faith in the system, Hartnett attended the consultations the following Monday and in the evening received a surprise phone call from DOCS asking to assess his home. “It happened backwards,” the father of five told IPS. “First they took the child and then they came to assess.” The child was restored to the family but everyone, said Hartnett, has remained scarred by the experience.

“After the [2008] apology,” Auntie Hazel told IPS, “our community felt disempowered. We were suffering in silence.”

The truth was out about removals and instead “government stigmatised us,” Hartnett told IPS, referring to a case in 2007 Australia’s Northern Territory when, citing unfounded allegations of child abuse, federal government seized control of a number of indigenous communities.

Olivia Nigro, a social justice campaigner and researcher for GMAR told IPS that in this context, what GMAR has achieved is mobilisation from within. “GMAR has galvanised families in affected communities. It has really generated the political confidence to talk about this issue and demand redress for the people.”

Edited by Phil Harris

Sri Lankan Women Stymied by Archaic Job Market

The few Sri Lankan women who seek employment find that the system does not work in their favour. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The few Sri Lankan women who seek employment find that the system does not work in their favour. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
MIRIGAMA, Sri Lanka , May 28 2015 (IPS)

Wathsala Marasinghe, a 33-year-old hailing from the town of Mirigama, just 50 km from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, once had high hopes that the progressive education and employment policies of this South Asian island nation would work in her favour. Today, she feels differently, believing that “an evil system” has let her down.

As a young girl, she attended one of the best schools in the area and was selected to attend a state university. “I went there with so much hope,” she tells IPS – but apparently with little knowledge of her true job prospects.

“Paternity leave, child care, crèche services at workplaces, and better and safer public transport facilities for women could be [provided] by the private and public sectors in order to incentivise women to join the labour market.” — Anushka Wijesinha, a consultant to Sri Lankan government ministries
As an undergraduate she studied Buddhism and her native tongue, Sinhala. Her plan was to secure a government job, possibly in teaching or in the public service, and preferably close to home.

But when it came time to job-hunt, she found herself coming up against one wall after another.

“I kept applying and going for interviews but never got a job except as a secretary at a small factory,” she says.

This post did not come close to her employment aspirations, and she was forced to quit after a month. “The salary was 8,000 rupees (about 59 dollars) – I had to spend half of that on traveling,” she explains. The average monthly income in Sri Lanka is about 300 dollars.

She continued to apply, but each time she found herself sitting among a crowd of applicants that seemed to get younger and younger.

The stark reality of the situation has now become clear to her, and she has given up going for interviews altogether, embarrassed to be in the company of other hopefuls who “look like my daughters.”

Marasinghe’s conundrum is not rare in Sri Lanka, despite the country’s purported efforts to achieve targets on gender equality and visible signs of progress on paper.

In 2012, the Gender Gap Report produced by the World Economic Forum ranked Sri Lanka 39th out of 135 countries surveyed, an unsurprisingly strong placement given that the country of 20 million people has a female adult literacy rate of 90 percent. This rises to 99 percent for female youth in the 15-24 bracket.

Furthermore, girls outnumber their male counterparts at the secondary level, indicating a dedication to gender equality across the social spectrum.

However this has not translated into equitable employment opportunities, or wage parity between men and women.

Government labour statistics indicate that 64.5 percent of the 8.8 million economically active people in Sri Lanka are men, while just 35.5 percent are women. Of the economically inactive population, just 25.4 percent are men, and 74.6 percent are women.

The female unemployment rate in Sri Lanka is over two-and-a-half times that of the male rate, and almost twice the national figure. According to government data, only 2.9 percent of men entering the labour market remain unemployed, while the corresponding figure for women is 7.2 percent. The national unemployment rate is 4.2 percent.

The same government figures indicate that education and skills do not necessarily help females secure employment – on the contrary, they could result in a lifetime of frustrations.

“The problem of unemployment is more acute in the case of educated females than educated males,” said the latest labour force survey compiled by the Census and Statistics Department.

Experts say there are a multitude of structural and social reasons behind the high rate of female unemployment.

For starters while nearly three in four males enter the job market, it is the reverse for women, with just 35 percent of working-age females actually seeking employment, resulting in a skewed supply chain.

Economist Anushka Wijesinha, who works as a consultant to government ministries, says that women who seek higher education also have higher job aspirations, but the job market has not grown fast enough to cater to such needs.

“Aspirations are shifting away from working in the industrial sector as before – more women are keen to work in services like retail […] but jobs in this sector haven’t grown fast enough to cater to the changing aspirations. So we are seeing ‘queuing’, women waiting for those jobs and not getting them,” he tells IPS.

Sri Lankan women say that improved transport, childcare and crèche facilities would create a more favorable employment environment. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Sri Lankan women say that improved transport, childcare and crèche facilities would create a more favorable employment environment. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development, shares that analysis, but believes that female unemployment levels should be adjusted to include the roughly 600,000 Sri Lankan women working overseas, the bulk as domestic workers.

He is also an advocate of placing an economical value on women who are fully occupied with looking after households.

Currently, the single largest employer of women is the agricultural sector at 33.9 percent, while the services sector employs around 42 percent of women, while industries employ around 24 percent.

There are other reasons why women stay away from work. Nayana Siriwardena, a 35-year-old mother of two, used to work till she had her first child. After the government-stipulated three months’ maternity leave ran out, she had to return to work.

“What I found problematic was that the workplace could not be flexible enough to address my situation,” she said.

She worked in bookkeeping and tried to impress upon her employers that some of the work could be done from a remote location.

“But they did not understand that, which I found surprising because the company was quite progressive in other areas and also because young mothers are not a rare occurrence in any establishment.”

Wijesinha feels that maternal benefits themselves, which legally must be provided for three months, can act as a deterrent to some companies.

“Maternal benefits have to be paid in full by the employer. This means that employers may be deterred [from] hiring young women, because they know they likely have to pay maternal benefits,” he said.

Sarvananthan says that security for women – at the work place, during the commute, and for their offspring – could play a huge role in changing employment figures.

“In order to boost labour force participation by women, a carrot-and-stick approach could be pursued by the state. Paternity leave, child care, crèche services at workplaces, and better and safer public transport facilities for women could be [provided] by the private and public sectors in order to incentivise women to join the labour market,” he argues.

He also believes the government should ink an equal opportunities law that legally undermines discriminatory policies. Currently, the constitution stipulates that no one should be discriminated based on sex, but there is no law that provides for equal pay for the same work.

Having more women in the workplace is not only a current problem but could also be a future crisis, as Sri Lanka’s working population ages. Currently, 17 percent of the population is above the age of 55, while 25 percent is below 15 years, meaning only around 50 percent are believed to be in the working age group.

“Given that women comprise just over half of the population, and our working age population peak is beginning to wane, it is critical that we have maximum participation from women in the workforce,” Wijesinha states.

Many believe a higher portion of women in decision-making positions could right these imbalances.

Women’s political representation remains low, with less than 6.5 percent women in parliament, less than six percent in provincial councils, and fewer than two percent in local government.

As the country moves towards elections, activists and rights groups are calling for a 30 percent quota for women in the 20th amendment to the constitution.

If this goal is realised, it could spell change for people like Marasinghe, who, after a decade of searching for her elusive dream job, has all but given up hope.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Opinion: Finance Like a Cancer Grows

By Roberto Savio
ROME, May 26 2015 (IPS)

It is astonishing that every week we see action being taken in various part of the world against the financial sector, without any noticeable reaction of public opinion.Read more »