Untold suffering? : motherhood and the stolen generations

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The removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families gained national attention in Australia following the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Notably absent from this Report, however, were first hand accounts of the experiences of Indigenous parents, and in particular mothers, who were frequently the primary carers or sole parents of removed Indigenous children. Drawing primarily on interviews held in the Bringing Them Home Oral History Collection of the National Library of Australia, my research considers the impact of women’s status as mothers on their likelihood of reporting their experiences of human rights violations, through in-depth consideration of the mothers of the Stolen Generations. While some of the findings of the BTH Inquiry have been contested, there was widespread consensus in the community in the wake of the Inquiry that the removals constituted a violation of the rights of Indigenous children, who had suffered considerable harms as a result of their removal. However, the issue of whether the removal of these children was also a violation of the rights of their parents has not been a major focus. The Inquiry noted the lack of testimony by Indigenous parents, attributing it to the impact of trauma and the unwillingness of surviving parents to speak about their experiences due to their overwhelming sense of guilt and despair; a submission by Link-Up NSW commented on Aboriginal mothers being “unwilling and unable to speak about the immense pain, grief and anguish that losing their children had caused them” (HREOC 1997, p. 212). Viewing motherhood as a key site of the intersection of gender, race and state policy, my research identifies some of the significant structural disadvantages facing Aboriginal mothers in the Stolen Generations era, including legal inequalities in guardianship status and other parental rights, discrimination in their access to social security benefits, and the impact of state intervention and surveillance. My research highlights the differing perspectives on the reasons for the removal of Indigenous children held by Aboriginal mothers, those who were removed as children, and people involved in the removal process. A number of key factors emerge from my research that contribute to our understanding of Aboriginal mothers’ ongoing silence throughout the Inquiry process and beyond, and that have wider implications for the identification and investigation of violations of the human rights of mothers.
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