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Australia is failing the children of the Northern Territory

By Michelle Harris - posted Tuesday, 18 October 2011

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.

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About the Author

Michele Harris is a human rights supporter and a former director of torture and trauma services in the ACT.

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All articles by Michelle Harris

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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