Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sexually transmitted diseases are spreading rapidly through Australia's indigenous toddlers and children

Ashleigh Wilson:

With federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough standing by his claim that pedophile rings are operating in central Australia, Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin yesterday ordered an inquiry into the abuse of children in Australia's most disadvantaged communities. But new figures reveal child abuse and poor indigenous health is not confined to the Territory, with the number of Aboriginal children in Western Australia infected with STDs doubling in the past five years.

According to West Australian Health Department statistics, 708 children under 14 had been infected with the diseases since 2001. And almost 80 per cent of the victims were Aboriginal.

Of those, 19 were toddlers and preschoolers under the age of four. In the Kimberley region in the state's far northwest, four children aged under four had been infected with chlamydia or gonorrhoea last year.

STD rates are also high in other states, as the culture of silence over sexual abuse, coupled with a lack of support services and indigenous disadvantage, continues to blight the next generation of Aboriginal men and women.

While The Australian and other media outlets have been casting light on the issue for years, doubts remain over the official response to the crisis, with the NSW Government under fire yesterday for sitting on a damning report on Aboriginal child abuse and the Queensland Government investigating claims its child safety department was too slow to respond to complaints a 10-year-old girl had been raped on Cape York.

Ms Martin is today expected to name the head of the NT inquiry she hopes will "break through the fear and the shame and the silence we see about child sex abuse in our communities".

"We have failed to prosecute child sex abuse," Ms Martin said yesterday. "We have failed because we couldn't get people to come forward as witnesses. Police have done work in those communities and we can't get the evidence, we can't get people to step forward - and that's what this inquiry is about."

Mr Brough, who has called a summit on indigenous disadvantage for Monday, last night declared the victims could not wait for another inquiry to report.

"You would hope that anything that is going to shine the light on what is a desperate situation is positive but what we need right now is action and that's what I hope to achieve in co-operation with the states and territories on Monday," Mr Brough said.

Melva Kennedy, a member of the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Task Force in NSW, said it was a misconception that systematic sexual abuse within indigenous communities was confined to remote areas. "It happens all over the place, all over Australia, not just the outback" said Ms Kennedy, who has worked in the field of child protection for the past 20 years. "I know of incidents of sexual abuse in communities in the cities, in country towns, and in the outback."

The NT inquiry was called amid a heated row between Mr Brough and territory authorities over allegations of child abuse at Mutitjulu, an Aboriginal community in the shadow of Uluru that the Chief Minister describes as one of the most dysfunctional in the Northern Territory.

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