Reclaiming strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities through a gender equity lens
The Aboriginal Gender Study was a collaborative study undertaken by the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia, partnering with the University of Adelaide and the South Australia Health and Medical Research Institute. The study aimed to explore, from a strengths-based perspective, the diversity of contemporary perspectives of gender, gender roles and gender equity in South Australian Aboriginal communities.
During 2017 and 2018, yarning circles were held with 49 participants with a range of ages and gender identities in three sites. The yarning circles were transcribed, coded and thematically analysed using a collective approach where researchers came together to interpret themes through an Aboriginal lens.
Key findings from the yarning circles:
- Understandings of gender were diverse and ranged from biological to understanding gender as a complex, social and cultural concept. This diversity of understandings was apparent in all age groups. There was acknowledgment that understandings have changed through generations.
- Strong Aboriginal men were described in terms of their knowledge of culture and identity, and their ability to share this knowledge with family and community. Other depictions of strong men included ‘good fathers’, ‘hard workers’, and ‘providers’.
- Strong Aboriginal women were portrayed as being connected to culture, and being influential in their families and the community. Women (particularly older women) self-identified as resilient and survivors.
- Participants also defined a strong cultural identity for men and women in terms of reciprocity, including sharing resources, caring for family and giving back to the community, including in paid employment roles.
- Parents, community members and peers were reported as having 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 although there were contradictions around how this played out in everyday life. Some older and younger women expressed the view that women undertook the bulk of family responsibilities (childrearing, emotional support and domestic duties) whilst young men and some older women believe that child rearing is more shared among young parents.
- Connection to family and culture was expressed as an important aspect of Aboriginal life and integral to maintaining resilience. Loss of connections or limited support networks were reported as problematic for both men and women but there was a consistent view that men had less sources of support available to them to foster these connections. Participants commonly referred to men’s loss of a place in the community as a result of government policies, intergenerational trauma and other ongoing effects of colonisation.
- Almost all participants recognised that the expression of emotions are gendered and acknowledged that this is particularly problematic for men in the community. It was often suggested that more culturally safe spaces specific to men are needed to allow emotions to be expressed in a safe environment.
- Experiences of racism were commonly reported by participants and these were gendered, reflected in stereotypes regarding men and women as well as episodes of transphobia and homophobia within and outside of the community.
- Although the language around ‘gender equity’ was not commonly used by participants, the principles of gender equity were widely accepted by the community. For example, when discussing fairness they spoke of equal partnerships between women and men, and sharing and fulfilling responsibilities to family and community. Many agreed that the nature of these responsibilities may be different for women and men, such as in cultural activities. This conceptualisation of gender equity as partnerships and fulfilling responsibilities highlights the important role that reciprocity plays in many Aboriginal cultures and value systems, and the importance of instilling responsibility from an early age. This is an important distinction to current Western understandings of gender equity, which focus on individual rights to access power and resources, and often employment issues (such as the gender pay gap).
- While gender equity was thought of as equal partnerships, described as ‘men and women walking side by side’, in certain domains this appeared to only be aspirational, for example, there were contradictory findings regarding the degree of shared roles within the family.
The study also included a literature review and critique of current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and social policy documents to explore how gender and gender equity is positioned in these documents. This identified a lack of contemporary research about Aboriginal masculinity and femininity that focuses on strengths, and no studies that incorporated the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ).
Further analysis of policy documents revealed that existing health and social policies concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not adequately consider gender-specific vulnerabilities and consequences. The exceptions were policies concerning health, family violence, and business, however, even in these policies gender was not contextualised, and gender issues were confined to a narrow set of risks, such as family violence and wage gaps. None were cognisant that the experiences of Aboriginal women and men reflect a unique intersection of racialised and gendered interactions, creating different patterns of inequality.
As this research was exploratory project limited to South Australia, the conclusions require further exploration via a larger study that reflects the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. Nevertheless, our findings underscore the need to consider gendered experiences in the development of programs and policies that aim to improve health and social and emotional wellbeing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The finding that both men and women conceptualised gender equity as sharing and fulfilling responsibilities to family and community, provides further impetus for funding and structural reform to allow Indigenous people to strengthen and reclaim their cultural responsibilities. This will contribute to building strong, positive, cultural identities, thus enhancing social and emotional wellbeing.