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Australia is failing the children of the Northern Territory

Michele Harris                                           -                                                          Tuesday, 18 October 2011


Australia is failing the children of the Northern Territory

Two reports were tabled last week in Geneva at the United Nation's pre-sessional meeting of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. These reports looked closely at whether Australia is complying with its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The first report, Listen to Children, covered broad national issues in relation to Australia's children. The second complementary report, Children of the Intervention, focused on those children living in the 'prescribed communities' of the Northern Territory, under separate legislation to all other Australian children.

The presentation to the UN Committee was prepared by two Aboriginal women, Djapirri Mununggirritj and Kathy Guthadjaka, who expressed their fear for the children of the Northern Territory:

"We fear for their future, for their ability to learn to walk in two worlds, to obtain an education and a job. We fear for their health and their general well-being. But most of all, we fear that these recent changes [the NTER legislation] will lead to the loss of our land, our culture and our language."

The women believe gross overcrowding and the failure to provide environmentally safe housing for children puts the health of the children at grave risk.

Between 2008 and 2009, for children between the ages of 0 and 14 years, Northern Territory hospital records show that the incidence of asthma has more than doubled, while malnutrition and nutritional anaemia have both increased by 66 per cent. There have been increases in skin infections of 8.8 per cent, upper respiratory infections of 25 per cent, and a staggering increase in otitis media (described by the Medical Journal of Australia as a "disease of poverty") of 124 per cent. See page 28 of this report for figures.

The cost of food in remote licensed shops is extremely high, with the cost of many standard items greatly exceeding prices of the same items in our large cities (see page 13 of this report for examples). The two women expressed the urgent need for food subsidies in remote areas of the Northern Territory.

At Australia's last periodic review under this Convention, in 2006, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Australia to "take adequate measures, within a set time period, to overcome the disparity in the nutritional status between indigenous and non-indigenous children" (see recommendation 48 in these Concluding Observations).

Australian Red Cross on its website refers to Aboriginal children under the age of five in some remote Northern Territory communities as "suffering malnutrition at rates similar to children in countries like Ethiopia."

Further, during a recent visit to Australia in which he visited remote Aboriginal communities, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Mr Salil Shetty, was shocked by what he saw saying that life in these communities was almost third-world. The ABC reported Mr Shetty as saying, "I can't believe I'm actually in one the richest countries in the world and you have people, Aboriginal communities, here who are living in conditions which are really almost inhumane."

Even though it is known that Homelands are safer and healthier places for children to live within their communities, the Federal Government perversely plans to reduce financial support to Homelands rather than increase it.

Kathy Guthadjaka, a community elder from the small homeland of Gawa on Elcho Island, also brought our attention to the Australian Government's failure to provide full-time teachers to the children who receive schooling at the 45 Homeland Learning Centres that dot the Northern Territory. "Why is it," she asked, "that some children have a qualified teacher for only two or three days each week when all children have a right to a full-time education?"

Herself a school teacher for many years, Ms Guthadjaka also expressed concern about the removal of the bilingual education program from Northern Territory schools. This, she believes, is the main cause of falling attendance rates. (Average school attendance rates in NTER communities fell from 62.1 per cent in November 2009 to 56.5 per cent in November 2010. See page 14 of this report.)

Ms Guthadjaka also said, "Bilingual learning programs recognise the importance of gaining competence in the child's first language, before introducing a second language." She has referred to the NT Government's current draft proposal to allow a quasi re-introduction of the program to some schools as "a compromise policy that fails at every level to commit to a successful re-introduction of bilingual learning."

Surely, when basic rights like health and education are being denied to Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory, Australia must listen to its critics. Change is overdue. We need to look at our priorities. It is shameful that Aboriginal children appear to be at the bottom of the heap.


Reproduced with the kind permission of Michele Harris.

Also see:

Background References:
The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by its State parties... All States parties are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights are being implemented. States must report initially two years after acceding to the Convention and then every five years. The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the State party in the form of "concluding observations".
Listening to Children - 2011 Child Rights NGO Report Australia - Child Rights Task Force May 2011
Children of the Intervention - Aboriginal Children living in the Northern Territory of Australia
- A submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
NT Australia's Local Hero 2011... Yolgnu elder Djapirri Mununggirritj is committed to addressing the issues facing her community, including drugs, alcohol and violence.... She is currently Manager of the Yirrkala Women's Centre and is a trailblazer in the political arena.
Yolŋu Aboriginal Consultants Initiative... Kathy Guthadjaka (also known as Gotha) is a Gatjirrk Warramiri woman living at Gäwa on her ancestral land at the top of Elcho Island. She worked as a teacher for over 40 years at Shepherdson College.
Editorials: Otitis media in Aboriginal children: tackling a major health problem... MJA 2002 177 (4): 177-178 Abstract - Introduction- Why is chronic suppurative otitis media so recalcitrant?- What strategies have worked?- What needs to happen in the future?- Author details - Chronic suppurative otitis media (CSOM) (see Box) is very uncommon in First World countries and is best regarded as a disease of poverty....
Closing the Gap - Monitoring Report -July - December 2010 - Part Two -
Page 28: Table 3:2: Indigenous hospital separation rates per 1,000 population by selected principal diagnosis (excluding dialyses), aged 0-14 years, Northern Territory, 2001-02 to 2008-09(a)(b)(c)(d)
Children of the Intervention - Aboriginal Children living in the Northern Territory of Australia
- A submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
See page 13: cost of food examples: Melbourne, Katherine, Beswick
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Committee on the Rights of the Child - 40th session - Concluding Observations: Australia 20-10-05
See recommendation 48, page 10
World Disasters Report 2011
Red Cross has released the World Disasters Report, with a major focus on hunger and malnutrition.
Secretary General Salil Shetty
Salil Shetty joined Amnesty International as the organization's eighth Secretary General in July 2010. A long-term activist on poverty and justice, Salil Shetty leads the movement's worldwide work to end the abuse of human rights. He is the organization's chief political adviser, strategist and spokesperson and takes Amnesty International's campaigns to the highest level of government, the United Nations and business...
Amnesty slams 'shocking' Indigenous conditions Updated October 10, 2011 06:09:05
Amnesty International says the Federal Government needs to be internationally shamed into addressing poverty among Indigenous Australians.
Healthy Country Healthy People Study supports links between healthy landscapes and healthy people 18 May 2009
A groundbreaking study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia by researchers from the Menzies School of Health Research, Charles Darwin University, Australian National University, the Menzies Research Institute and the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health has demonstrated an association between Indigenous ‘Caring for Country' practices and a healthier, happier life.
Our report: Aboriginal Peoples' right to homelands - 9 August 2011, 12:01AM
For over three years we partnered with the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr communities of Utopia homelands to develop our report. "'The land holds us:' Aboriginal Peoples' right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory." Our report highlights the way specific policies on homelands in the Northern Territory undermine the rights of Aboriginal communities... Our recommendations focus on the need for governments at both national and territory level to show political and financial support for homelands.
Closing the Gap - Monitoring Report -July - December 2010 - Part Two -
Page 14: The average attendance rate for schools in the NTER communities was 56.5% in November 2010. The average school attendance rate in November 2009 was 62.1%.
Draft policy - Literacy framework learners policy for students with English as an additional language