Bridging the Gap: Australia and its Aboriginal People

Human rights and its absence among the aboriginals

Image by The Australian

For the past few months, I’ve been working with several volunteers within my organization on supporting a workshop in Darwin, Australia. The goal of this workshop was to train fifteen midwives and several general health practitioners on basic training skills in ultrasound in OB/GYN, with the ultimate goal of having them branch out into the townships in both Northern Territory State (where Darwin is located) and Western Australia to provide prenatal scanning for pregnant women within the aboriginal communities.


During the time spent planning and supporting this workshop (which was scheduled for mid-October), I met with one of our volunteers during our organization’s annual conference in Barcelona. For now, we’ll call her Tracy.


Under the brilliant Mediterranean sun as we sat on a balcony overlooking the outstanding

Catalan coast, Tracy and I met to discuss in more depth into the background and details of the project in Darwin.


To be honest, I was quite ignorant of Australia. I had always focused myself on understanding each country in this world in order for me to better come to terms with how to both approach these nations on both a diplomatic and developmental point of view, but I had never managed to give any attention to Australia. It probably stemmed from my own personal disinterest for the continent – I was never really attracted to Australia - not even to visit.


I knew nothing of “Oz” (as Australia is affectionately called by locals), basing the extent of my knowledge from what I’ve heard from the song with “Down Under”, with visions of vegemite on toast, shrimp on the “barbie”, kangaroos and Crocodile Dundee somehow in the background.


Ignorant and inexcusable, I know.


But one thing I did know about Australia was the history of its aboriginal communities and how they have inhabited the continent for more than 50,000 years. However, Tracy’s conversation left me baffled with not only my own utter ignorance for ‘Oz’ but also for the ignorance that the world has with Australia in general, particularly regarding human rights.


What I learned through my conversations with Tracy sent shockwaves in my brain.


Australia is among the most developed nations in the world. A member of the OECD and an economic powerhouse within the Australasian region, it is considered to be a both a democratic and Westernized nation. Yet, Australia is the only country in the Western world, which does not have a bill of rights - meaning a bill or constitution that protects the human rights of its citizens.


Australia’s lack of human rights can be most evidently displayed from its treatment of the Aboriginal peoples. Stereotyped by the media as uneducated and primitive, the aboriginal people have been put into townships that go against their cultural norms (living within the bush and wild as do the Xingu of Brazil). During the last century, aboriginal people were subject to racial law and even removed of their children to be placed into foster homes (the victims of this event are now known as “the children of the stolen generation”). The motives were later found to be with the intention of rendering the aboriginal cultural extinct. These children were later found to have grown up completely traumatized and disenfranchised. Many did not graduate even from high school and the toll the experience had them turning to alcohol.


Even in the beginning of current century, human rights abuses and racism were still carried out by the Australian government towards the aboriginal peoples, although to a lesser extent. Awareness has raised over the years towards the issue of aboriginal rights and in 2008, the Australian Prime Minister made an official apology on behalf of the Australian government for the atrocities committed by the government towards them.


However, not much else has been done post-apology. Currently, efforts through collaboration with NGO’s and the Australian state of Northern Territory (where 28% of the population is aboriginal and most of the townships are located) have initiated in trying to “bridge the gap” between the aboriginal communities and the rest of Australia.


One of the most important gaps to bridge within these communities is, without a doubt, the quality of health provided. Maternal mortality rates within the aboriginal communities are high as prenatal scanning to detect difficulties during pregnancies are not carried out. Bringing in trained midwives into the communities would help combat this easily.


“But the problem stems from more than just this,” explained Tracy, with the light and salty sea breeze blowing strands of her hair over her eyes – eyes in which I could see her stress and anxiety over the situation, “it’s education. The problem is the people in these communities have rarely even finished secondary school. So they won’t know if they should do the scanning or not. And it they do, it would just be first trimester without repeated vists during second or third. What we need is to have also a better education infrastructure which teaches adults and children early on the ‘in’s and out’s’ of general health practice.”


“Then why don’t they bring in teachers?” I asked.


“Yes, they can but then these teachers are placed in spacious government housing, while the rest of the community is suffering with 24 people in a one bedroom house. It looks bad.”


“Simple – build more houses for them! How could that be complicated?”


Tracy shook her head and pulled out a cigarette from her purse, puffing the smoke out into the sea after she lit it swiftly. “There are intervention laws in Australia,” she told me. “These are laws that say that the government will build homes for the aboriginal people but only if they give up their land for a total of 40 years.”


I gawked back at her in disgust. “That’s absurd!


“That’s business.” She pointed out. “The aboriginal people won’t give up their land as it’s connected to the bush and their roots. But the government wants it because the land is mineral rich. It’s a catch-22 which block improvement.”


I sat in silence for a bit, reflecting on what was told to me. How could Australia be classified as a progressive nation yet undergo laws and regulations that undermine these values and elude to apartheid South Africa? How could not international community be so blind by what was going on “down under?


“Do you think the workshop we’re doing and sending these midwives out into the bush will make a difference?” I asked.


Tracy puffed another time at her cigarette and flicked it off half finished into the sea. “It’s going to take a lot more than just a workshop.” She said. “It’s going to take a lot of work – period.”



Relevant links:



This is Our Country too is an excellent documentary which helps explain the current issues regarding human rights and the need to bridge the gap among the Australian aboriginals. It highlights the magnetization and racism they receive and the historical issues which are still present in today’s current events. It’s easy to watch and I highly recommend it!


As coordinator of ISUOG’s Outreach program, we are pleased to be doing what we can to reduce maternal mortality levels among the aboriginal communities through introduction of ultrasound. For more information about the project in Australia, read our blog for more details from both the volunteers and on-the-ground workers.
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