Growing up fast in two remote Aboriginal communities

Growing up fast in two remote Aboriginal communities Book Section

Indigenous Australian Youth Futures: Living the Social Determinants of Health

  • Author(s): McMullen, Sue
  • Secondary Author(s): Senior, Kate, Chenhall, Richard, Burbank, Victoria
  • Published: 2021
  • Publisher: ANU Press
  • ISBN: 9781760464448

Abstract: In this chapter, I focus on how young Aboriginal women find sexual partners, often with a view to marriage and child-bearing, in two communities. The first is a remote Aboriginal community that is restricted: non-residents must obtain a permit to enter (hereafter ‘the community’). I lived and worked as a nurse in the community for several years. The second is a town, in the sense that there is unrestricted movement of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but it is still a remote community (hereafter ‘the town’). It is situated on the edge of Arnhem Land and is close to major mining developments. As such, the town has regular contact with non-Indigenous workers. A steady stream of non-Indigenous tourists also visit, attracted by fishing opportunities in the area. In contrast to the community, alcohol is readily available in the town. I visited the town regularly over a period of three years while researching my PhD thesis. Both places are connected through country and kinship relationships with family members travelling from one community to the other for funerals, ceremonies and social visits. In both, young Indigenous women appear to be growing up fast and forming sexual relationships in the early years of adolescence. Two bodies of evidence inform this chapter. The first is based on my experience as a nurse in the community, with responsibility (among many other things) for the sexual health of young people. During this period, my view of young people’s sexual relationships was narrow, confined to health education initiatives and point of care at the clinic. In terms of the numbers of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, I was able to observe the scope of the issue, but I was not in a position to understand the motivation of young women and the decisions they made regarding their relationships. In 2012, I began my PhD research in the town of Boroloola. During this time, I lived in the town and was able to observe the lives and interactions of young women, as well as how their actions were perceived by older members of the community. My participant observation was supplemented by in-depth interviews with women and workshops exploring sexual decision-making. Many of the young women were reluctant to talk to me; therefore, explanations for some of the behaviours I observed were obtained from older women, whose perspectives may have been influenced both by their concern for, and propensity to critique, the younger generation. Early sexual experience can have significant effects on the sexual and reproductive health of young Indigenous women, including higher rates of underage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Such women and their children often experience negative long-term outcomes (Stark and Hope 2007). Early sexual relationships can also influence developmental outcomes, as those who are sexually active can disengage from education. This is due to the late nights in which young people carve out their personal space and time away from the eyes of adults (Senior and Chenhall 2008). They may have minimal knowledge about life choices that are not linked to relationships and reproduction (McMullen 2015). Premature reproduction, generally, is associated with negative or less than optimal outcomes for children (Brumbach, Figueredo and Ellis 2009). Very little is known about how Indigenous youths negotiate relationships, define risk, conceptualise their sexuality and sexual decision-making, or how their views may be influenced by the culture and society in which they live (Senior 2003). Indigenous sexual and reproductive health has long been a priority with successive governments. Many interventions (Guy et al. 2012) have been designed to address this issue but, despite some success, particularly in the reduction of sexually transmitted diseases, young Indigenous women continue to bear a significant burden. Over the years, I have come to appreciate that young Indigenous women, living within a society at least partially governed by customary law, may experience a disconnection from the larger world and its social and cultural norms. Young Indigenous women living in the community and town examined in this chapter have many issues with which to contend. Remote Aboriginal communities have been severely tested by substance misuse and social disruption, a consequence of violent displacement from traditional lands and the introduction of welfare, alcohol and other drugs. Under such circumstances, young Aboriginal women trying to negotiate the perils of early adolescence appear to have no clear pathways (MacDonald and Boulton 2011; Burbank, Senior and McMullen 2015).

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McMullen, Sue, 2021, Growing up fast in two remote Aboriginal communities, Book Section, viewed 22 October 2021,

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