Invest in an Indigenous girl, and she’ll do the rest: Empowering girls today makes for a more prosperous tomorrow

By Renee White

Renee attended the 2016 UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.


Over the past several decades in Australia, there have been a range of attempts to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous women continue to be severely disadvantaged across their lifetimes, notably lacking access to relevant and effective education opportunities and the tools to support them through to successful careers. In recent years, a focus has been placed on developing the educational performance of boys, which has drawn attention away from addressing the educational inequalities of Indigenous girls.[1] It is important that Indigenous women are supported to become drivers of change, and that policies are created to remove the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, including through addressing unequal education opportunities. In line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,[2] and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,[3] this paper serves to identify the key causes of the current inequality and recommend practical actions for change.

General Recommendations

Recommendation 1: Commit to integrating culturally-appropriate sexual health and domestic violence education into currently available critical services and strategies, with a particular focus on children and young women. This needs to include access to contraception in a way that is discrete and non-judgmental;

Recommendation 2: Work with Indigenous students to develop programs at school that interest them and will encourage them to continue attending; and

Recommendation 3: Develop a curriculum that not only informs students about Indigenous culture and history but authentically incorporates Indigenous values as part of the Australian identity.

Recommendations specific to indigenous women 

Recommendation 4: Encourage Australian businesses to commit to implementing scholarships and cadetships for Indigenous women, in the vein of the He for She campaign;

Recommendation 5: Encourage Indigenous girls to enter fields such as teaching and health services in order to present positive role models for young women through university recruitment drives and career days;

Recommendation 6: Provide greater support for young Indigenous mothers to continue on a path of education and personal advancement, including easier access to day care services and the development of sustainable support groups with a dedicated Indigenous health worker; and

Recommendation 7: Implement regional Indigenous Career Fairs involving Indigenous role models, to encourage high school students to consider university and other higher education options.


The United Nations has recognised the disadvantages faced by Indigenous people, and in particular the struggles of Indigenous girls and women, as an issue in desperate need of rectification through the development of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The repercussions of the extreme suffering and cruel and inhumane treatment experienced by Australia’s Indigenous populations, including forced removal from their land, exposure to foreign diseases, rape and slavery, have had a long-lasting and extremely detrimental effect on the Indigenous population.[4] In particular, as the caregivers and homemakers of their communities, Indigenous women have been marginalised through these actions and suffer uniquely as a result of a combined disadvantage of both their ethnicity and gender.

Indigenous women in Australia are three times more likely to die in child birth than non-Indigenous women,[5] twice as likely to suffer from diabetes as any other group in Australia,[6] and, for women in remote areas, 45 times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence.[7] Indigenous women have higher unemployment rates than any other group,[8] and are dismally underrepresented in positions of power. Australia’s failure to address the barriers that prevent a portion of the population from reaching their full potential does a disservice to both those people affected, and the nation as a whole, including on the international stage. It is essential that options are explored to identify the issues surrounding the inability of Indigenous women to advance in society, determine the source of these barriers, and implement strategies to ensure that the original people of Australia have every opportunity to make the most of all this country has to offer.

In recent years, the disparity between the number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous girls completing secondary education has lessened, but there is still an alarming gap between the two. A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare determined that the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous girls completing schooling was almost 30 points, with 82.7 per cent of non-Indigenous girls staying school between grades seven to twelve, and only 49.5 per cent of Indigenous girls doing the same.[9] The reasons for this discrepancy are vast in number, arising from different causes and circumstances. Urquhart (2009) identifies three broad areas that affect an Indigenous student’s ability to succeed at school within the context of social influences – school, family and student.[10] School refers to the educational environment and how students perceive their efficacy within that environment. Family refers to the societal and support structures students have, and can determine their ability or willingness to engage in learning activities, and self refers to individual issues, including emotional issues such as confidence and self-esteem, and physical issues such as health and nutrition that may affect their ability to commit to schooling. The issues surrounding these areas will be discussed in detail throughout this paper.

Drawing from Urquhart’s work, this paper will explore cultural and societal norms that act as a barrier to Indigenous women advancing through education and making or changing community and societal perceptions.


Family is a major influence on the perception and value placed by young Indigenous women on education. Most notably, the literacy level of other members of the household, combined with the general parental and family attitude towards learning, have a heavy impact on the way she herself views the necessity of schooling.[10] Studies show that children of parents who have completed schooling are more likely to do the same, and have also shown that the opposite is true – children whose parents did not complete their schooling are less likely to complete their own.[11] There are a number of familial influences that can affect a girl’s ability to attend and complete school, including a lack of expectation or encouragement, and a pressure for girls to raise a family rather than obtain a career.[12]

The stark contrast in Indigenous women’s experience of domestic violence compared to other groups in Australia is alarming. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare finds that Indigenous women are 13 times more likely than non-Indigenous people to seek refuge to escape family violence, and 35 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic or family violence. 12 Most shockingly, Indigenous women are ten times more likely to die as a result of assault than non-Indigenous Australians.[13] Additionally, these figures must take into account the rampant non-disclosure of violence and sexual assault that takes place in Indigenous communities, due to mistrust of the system, fear of retribution, or the cultural taboo of ‘shame’.[14]

Fantuzzo and Mohr (1999) demonstrate that children living in an environment of domestic and family violence tend to show poor impulse control, limited concentration, and feelings of resentment towards figures of authority.[15] Children are also likely to mirror the behaviour of their families, leading to young girls being more at risk of entering and maintaining abusive and controlling relationships.[16]

The combination of these difficult issues surrounding the home lives of young Indigenous girls is not conducive to learning and achievement at school. The complex familial responsibilities and expectations of the Indigenous community, along with generational acceptance of poor family relationships, can place a great amount of pressure on Indigenous girls to comply with the expectations placed on them both by their own families and Australian society at large.


School is another key determinant of a child’s success. Schools play an essential role in encouraging children to enjoy and participate in learning. Steps must be taken to ensure that school is a welcoming and comfortable environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; important not only for female students, but for male Indigenous students as well. Researchers Shields et. al (2005) identify a problem in the school environment called ‘deficit thinking’, the assumption held by some educators that non-Western cultures can only bring disadvantages to a classroom, and that children belonging to these cultures lack the intelligence or the ambition to become successful learners.[17] A study carried out in North Queensland in 2015 identified that one of the biggest factors Indigenous people felt was preventing them from succeeding at school was mistrust – a deep feeling of not belonging, and a learned resentment of institutionalisation passed down through generations since European settlement.[18]

With these concerns in mind, it is important that schools look for a way to not only be culturally inclusive and sensitive, but work to develop ways to insert a positive representation of Aboriginality throughout relevant areas of the curriculum. This can include learning Aboriginal language alongside other second language studies, incorporating Indigenous stories and customs into the classroom, and searching for other ways that Indigenous culture can contribute to the classroom.[19] It is essential that children are taught that Indigenous culture is part of the national identity, rather than something separated from non-Indigenous people.

In Geraldton, Western Australia, one high school has developed a hairdressing program aimed at encouraging young girls to continue to attend school.[20] This program has been hailed as a success in the Australian Government’s ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage 2014’ report,[21] where it is recommended that the program be formally evaluated and used to develop similar programs to engage Indigenous children in something that interests them and provides transferable skills. Using such a program to entice young female students attend school should be formalised and widely implemented, as it allows students to develop self-efficacy and an interest in learning. 


The third component of student success relates to the individual students, ensuring they have the ability to nurture both physical and mental health, self-esteem, appropriate behaviour and self-efficacy to achieve goals. A study conducted among a group of young Indigenous women in Townsville asked them to identify health issues they felt the most concerned about, and also asked them to describe why they did not seek help or treatment for these concerns.[22] Their biggest health concern was pregnancy or the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, and the most often cited reason for not seeking medical advice regarding these concerns was ‘shame’, a concept common among Indigenous people that one should be embarrassed to seek help for medical needs, regarding sexual and reproductive needs in particular. This was also determined to be connected to a feeling of inferiority around non-Indigenous people, as the Indigenous girls felt discriminated against, either judged or stereotyped, when seeking information or treatment.[23] These generational negative perceptions of healthcare and the people who provide it has long-term effects on the health of young women in the Indigenous community. This can lead to more time away from school dealing with medical issues, reduced ability to attend and participate in study due to mental illnesses, and a higher proportion of young girls leaving school to raise children.[24]

This aversion to seeking essential medical care can begin to be addressed by the provision of culturally sensitive programs that do not exclude Indigenous women through fear of reprisal or embarrassment. In instances where this is not feasible, implementing more rigorous training regarding cultural sensitivity and understanding for health practitioners should be compulsory. It is also essential that the Australian Government commit further to encouraging young Indigenous people, and women in particular, into higher education in essential disciplines such as health and education in order to further support their communities to raise healthy, thriving families.[25]

Teenage pregnancy is extremely prevalent among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls and is linked to the avoidance of seeking assistance with contraception or sexual education. In 2005, it was found that the rate of teenage pregnancy (those under twenty years of age) among Indigenous girls was four times that of the general population[26]. While a framework exists for sexual health and relationship education in schools,[27] it is often implemented inconsistently and without taking into account the needs of the female students; for example, with a male teacher or in a co-educational environment, where girls may not feel comfortable engaging with the material in order to understand. Sexual and relationship education in a culturally sensitive manner needs to be implemented beginning at a young age, ideally during primary education. It must be targeted at the needs of the children participating.

It is also important that the stigma of teenage pregnancy is addressed so that it does not automatically spell the end of a young woman’s education. The idea that learning can and should continue while raising children should be conveyed to Indigenous girls at all levels of their education to change attitudes regarding the mother’s options following teenage pregnancy. To encourage young mothers in the Indigenous community to continue their education, incentives may range from financial assistance for childcare subsidies to assistance with job-search related costs such as obtaining a driver’s license, undertaking study, or purchasing uniforms. Under current welfare guidelines, the only assistance provided to women in receipt of a parenting payment is to access Jobactive, an Australian employment assistance program, which provides support with resume-writing, preparing for job interviews, and applying for work. However, it does not entitle recipients to the financial assistance and marketing opportunities available to other job seekers.[28]

To assist young Indigenous women with their education and family responsibilities, one solution is to develop local young mother’s support groups run by dedicated Indigenous health workers to offer advice, advocacy and encouragement to complete a full education. Many communities have reported moderate success with such programs[29] and this implementation could provide young Indigenous mothers with the support they need to achieve success.


Indigenous women in Australia are exceptionally disadvantaged in comparison to their non-Indigenous counterparts in several critical areas, and these deficits have continued to impact on their ability to succeed in school, impacting their career options. Indigenous women are overwhelmingly disadvantaged by extreme levels of domestic violence compared to other groups; they often lack emotional support, affecting their self-esteem and self-efficacy; they endure alienation in schools due to a deficit in the understanding and inclusion of Indigenous culture; and they experience worse outcomes than non-Indigenous women in terms of both mental and physical health.

These issues must be comprehensively addressed so that Indigenous girls can be empowered to set high personal and professional goals for themselves and achieve a desired future. The lack of appropriate and culturally sensitive education in the areas of sexual health, relationships and schooling lends itself to a cycle of repeated poor performance in those areas, which leads back to women not receiving the information they need. By encouraging the Indigenous girls of today to seek help, access support and overcome structural and institutional barriers, Australia can end the cycle of poverty and violence, and begin a new cycle of success and inspiration for generations to come.

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