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Becoming authors of our stories

Let me tell you about the communities of Fitzroy Valley, in Western Australia, and how a number of community leaders did something about the violence and dysfunction caused by alcohol abuse.


Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) was one of many saddening aspects of the chaos and despair the Fitzroy communities were experiencing because of alcohol abuse. But over the course of three years, Fitzroy Valley residents lifted themselves out of this chaos by adopting a community-led approach to alcohol abuse.


June Oscar, CEO of Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource, is one of the Fitzroy Valley residents who led this action. I’ve had many conversations with June about the despair that comes from disempowerment and the grief and trauma of living with grog, drugs and violence. But the stories we told each other didn’t end there. June wanted to tell a different story about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be the authors of our own stories if we become our own agents of change.


Of course, June was absolutely right. To properly address alcohol abuse and FASD, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have to become authors of our stories. We have to take control and take responsibility. But we cannot do this alone. Our communities need partnerships with government, businesses and NGOs to help remove structural and systemic impediments that hinder Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities from taking control.


I believe that the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can effectively guide our responses to FASD. The Declaration’s four key principles – self-determination, participation in decision-making based on free, prior and informed consent, respect for and protection of culture, non-discrimination and equality – provide a blueprint, if you like, for the role governments can play to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to respond to FASD.

A sense of control is transformative. It improves our wellbeing and enables individuals and communities to move from victimhood to an acceptance of responsibility.

A self-determining community not only exerts control but it also self-regulates. And it looks after the vulnerable in its community. It decides how disputes are resolved, how decisions are made, what protocols for behaviour are acceptable, and it takes responsibility to ensure the well-being of the entire community.


For these reasons, those working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need to do their work in ways that empower communities to become agents of their own change. The role of governments is to remove the obstacles that prevent us from taking control and also to build capacity within our communities so that we can take on these responsibilities. Intervention and management strategies must be developed in partnership with the people impacted by FASD. This includes children, women, families and communities.


Access to critical services is key component of equality. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need access to adequate, appropriate and affordable health care for women and families. To help prevent and address FASD these services need to include sexual and reproductive health as well as health education on the harms caused by FASD. And it is imperative that these services are delivered in a culturally appropriate and safe manner.


There are many steps the government can take to improve access to services. This can include providing training for health and other professionals on FASD, funding early intervention services and ensuring there is appropriate community care for those affected by FASD. Support services are needed across education, health, community services, employment and criminal justice sectors for affected communities, families and individuals.


The Fitzroy Valley story tells us that community engagement and self-determination, rather than a coercive, top-down approach to change and development, is the best way forward. Fitzroy Valley proves that strong local leadership, appropriately supported by Government, can empower communities to effectively deal with sensitive and intractable issues on their own terms.


You can follow the 1st Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Conference, Brisbane 19-20 November 2013 on Twitter @FASD2013 and @FASD2013.

Mick Gooda

Mick Gooda is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

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