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Tier 2 - Determinants of health

2.10 Community safety

Key facts

Why is it important?

Safe communities, where people feel secure and protected from harm within their home, workplace and community, are important for physical and social and emotional wellbeing (AIHW 2019a). When a person feels safe, they are enabled to live a better quality and healthier life and are more likely to engage in the community, and the community as a whole faces a lower incidence of and costs from injuries and violence.

Many factors can influence community safety and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (AIHW 2019a). Some positive influences include being connected to Country, land, family and spirit; having strong and positive social networks; and having strong leadership in both family and community.

However, experiencing threats and acts of violence, living in an environment where personal safety is at risk and facing social settings where violence is common can have negative health effects on the victim, their children and their family (AIHW 2018; AIHW 2019b; Coles et al. 2015; Loxton et al. 2019). Experiences of violence can occur both in the community and in a home environment, and violence may originate from strangers, family and kinship relations (AIHW 2018; Our Watch 2018a).

While the majority of Indigenous Australians do not experience physical or threatened harm, they are generally over-represented as both perpetrators and victims of violent crimes. Indigenous Australians tend to experience violence in the community and family violence at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians (Bartels 2010; Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2013). Non-Indigenous Australians are also perpetrators of violence against Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are also over-represented in Australia’s child protection, youth and adult justice systems.

Homicide and violence contributed 1.8% of the total burden of disease and injury for Indigenous Australians (AIHW 2016). Intimate partner violence is found to be responsible for 6.4% of the burden of disease and injury for Indigenous females, having its effect through anxiety, depression and suicide as well as homicide and violence (Ayre 2016). Family violence is a major reason for seeking assistance from homelessness services (see measure 2.01 Housing) and can also have implications for child protection (see measure 2.12 Child protection).

Indigenous Australians have experienced violence in the context of colonisation, discrimination, and cultural dispossession (Day et al. 2013; Our Watch 2018b). This has resulted in social, economic, physical, psychological and emotional effects for Indigenous Australians (AIHW 2018; Coles et al. 2015; Loxton et al. 2019; Our Watch 2018b). This environment has fostered a climate of lateral violence for some communities.

‘Lateral violence’ describes the way people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) in positions of powerlessness covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward towards themselves, each other and those less powerful than themselves. Lateral violence is a product of complex historical and social dynamics that is not limited to physical violence but can also include social, emotional, psychological, economic and spiritual forms of violence by individuals and groups (AHRC 2011). For Indigenous Australians, the roots of this are found in colonisation, control, oppression, intergenerational trauma and experiences of racism (Korff 2015).

The majority of Indigenous Australians do not commit violence or criminal behaviour. Improving the level of safety in all communities is dependent on addressing entrenched inequality and disadvantage and the multiple factors that give rise to violent and criminal behaviour. Australian governments have a role to play working in partnership with Indigenous Australians to address these factors.

The recently established National Agreement on Closing the Gap has identified the importance of ensuring Indigenous families and households are safe, Indigenous children are not over-represented in the child protection system, and Indigenous Australians are not over-represented in the criminal justice system. This includes specific outcomes, targets and indicators to direct policy attention and monitor progress. Reporting arrangements for the new agreement are being established. The data presented in this report predates the establishment of the agreement.

Findings

What does the data tell us?

Self-reported experience of violence

In the 2018–19 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (Health Survey), more than 1 in 7 Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over (16%; 76,900) reported they experienced physical and/or threatened physical harm in the preceding 12 months. In previous years, the proportion for Indigenous Australians who were a victim of physical or threatened violence was similar in 2002, 2008 and 2014–15 (23%). While these outcomes are similar they are not directly comparable (Table D2.10.21).

Experiencing actual physical harm in the last 12 months was reported by 6.3% (30,900) of Indigenous Australians aged over 15 in 2018–19. Of these victims, 74% (22,330) reported that they believed their offender was under the influence of alcohol or other substances during the most recent incident. Alcohol or other substances were more likely to be a factor in Remote areas (77%) than Non-remote areas (74%) (Table D2.10.19).

Among the Indigenous population, the reported rates for experience of physical or threatened physical harm in 2018–19 were slightly higher for males (17%; 39,900) than for females (14%; 36,700) (Table D2.10.22). Indigenous females reported actual physical harm at a similar rate to Indigenous males— 6.2% (15,040) compared with 6.4% (16,005) (Table D2.10.19).

Of Indigenous victims, females were just as likely as males to report that they knew the offender responsible for their most recent physical harm— 95% (15,120) compared with 94% (13,840). For females who knew the offender, 52% reported that it was a current or previous partner, and 31% reported that it was a friend or family member (Table D2.10.19).

In the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (Social Survey), Indigenous females aged 15 and over were less likely to feel safe walking alone in their local area after dark than Indigenous males (51% compared with 83%) and were less likely to feel safe alone at home after dark (79% compared with 95%) (Table D2.10.2).

The 2018–19 Health Survey found that Indigenous Australians were more likely to report experiencing being a victim of physical or threatened physical harm if they were:

  • someone with a disability or long-term health condition (20% compared with 12% for someone with no disability)
  • unemployed (29% compared with 14% for those employed)
  • a current smoker (19% compared with 13% for non-smokers)
  • a substance user in last 12 months (24% compared with 13% for those who did not use substances) (Table D2.10.1).

Indigenous Australians were also more likely to report being a victim if they were in the lowest (1st) quintile of equivalised gross household income (19%) compared with if they were in either of the two highest (4th/5th) quintiles (11%) (Table D2.10.1, Figure 2.10.1).

Figure 2.10.1: Proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over who reported experiencing physical or threatened physical harm in the previous 12 months, by selected health and population characteristics, 2018–19

This bar chart shows that, in the previous 12 months for Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over: 29% of those who were unemployed experienced physical or threatened physical harm, compared with 14% who were employed. 24% of substance users experienced physical or threatened physical harm, compared with 13% who did not use substance.19% of current smoker experienced physical or threatened physical, compared with 13% who were not current smoker. 19% of Indigenous Australians who were in the lowest quintile of equivalised household income experienced physical or threatened physical harm, compared with 11% who were in the 4th or 5th quintiles.

Source: Table D2.10.1. AIHW and ABS analysis of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19.

Questions about neighbourhood and community problems in the 2014–15 Social Survey found that Indigenous Australians living in Remote areas were more likely to report being aware of neighbourhood and community problems than those living in Non-remote areas. Those in Remote areas were more likely to report awareness of problems involving: youths, such as gangs or lack of activity (51% compared with 26%); alcohol (65% compared with 31%); family violence (48% compared with 19%); and assault (46% compared 14%) (Table D2.10.3).

Hospitalisations due to assault

From July 2015 to June 2017, there were 12,867 hospitalisations of Indigenous Australians due to assault. After adjusting for differences in the age structure between the two populations, Indigenous Australians were 13 times as likely to be hospitalised for assault as non-Indigenous Australians (9.1 compared with 0.7 per 1,000, respectively) (Table D2.10.4).

Indigenous Australians aged 35–44 had the highest rates of hospitalisation due to assault (19 per 1,000, compared with 1.0 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous Australians) (Table D2.10.4, Figure 2.10.2).

Figure 2.10.2: Rate of hospitalisation due to assault, by Indigenous status and age, July 2015 to June 2017

This bar chart shows that for Indigenous Australians the rate of hospitalisation due to assault was highest for those aged 35-44 (19.4 per 1,000), followed by the 25-34 age group (17.6 per 1,000), and the 45-54 age group (11.8 per 1,000); for non-Indigenous Australians the rate was below 1.5 per 1,000 for all age groups.

Source: Table D2.10.4. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

By jurisdiction, the rates of hospitalisation of Indigenous Australians due to assault were lowest in Tasmania (0.9 per 1,000) and highest in the Northern Territory (29 per 1,000) (Table D2.10.5, Figure 2.10.3).

Figure 2.10.3: Age-standardised rate of hospitalisation due to assault, by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, July 2015 to June 2017

This bar chart shows that, nationally, the rate of hospitalisation due to assault was 9 per 1,000 for Indigenous Australians and 0.7 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous Australians; the highest rate for Indigenous Australians was in the Northern Territory (29 per 1,000), followed by Western Australia (16 per 1,000) and South Australia (11 per 1,000), the lowest rate was in Tasmania (0.9 per 1,000).

Source: Table D2.10.5. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

By remoteness, the rates of hospitalisation for Indigenous Australians due to assault were lowest in Inner regional areas (3 per 1,000) and highest in Remote areas (25 per 1,000). For non-Indigenous Australians, this rate was 0.7 per 1,000 for Inner regional and 1.2 per 1,000 in Remote (Table D2.10.6, Figure 2.10.4).

Figure 2.10.4: Age-standardised rate of hospitalisation due to assault, by remoteness and Indigenous status, 2015–17

This bar chart shows that, nationally, the rate of hospitalisation due to assault was 9 per 1,000 for Indigenous Australians and 0.7 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous Australians; in Remote and Very remote areas the rate for Indigenous Australians was 25 and 24 per 1,000 respectively, compared with 4 per 1,000 in major cities and 3 per 1,000 in Inner regional areas.

Source: Table D2.10.6. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Overall, females made up 54% of Indigenous hospitalisations due to assault, compared with 26% for non-Indigenous females (Table D2.10.5).

From July 2015 to June 2017, Indigenous females were 27 times as likely as non‑Indigenous females to have been hospitalised due to assault nationally (9.8 compared with 0.4 per 1,000, respectively), 49 times as likely in Remote areas (29 compared with 0.6 per 1,000, respectively), and 57 times as likely in the Northern Territory (36 compared with 0.6 per 1,000, respectively), after adjusting for differences in the age structure between the two populations (Table D2.10.5, Table D2.10.6).

The rates of hospitalisation due to assault were lower for Indigenous females than for Indigenous males in Major cities (3.5 compared with 4.2 per 1,000, respectively) and Inner regional areas (2.4 compared with 3.9 per 1,000, respectively). Indigenous females were more likely than Indigenous males to be hospitalised due to assault in Remote areas (29 compared with 20 per 1,000, respectively) and in Very remote areas (29 compared with 19 per 1,000, respectively) (Table D2.10.6, Figure 2.10.5).

Figure 2.10.5: Age-standardised rates of hospitalisation due to assault, by remoteness and sex, Indigenous Australians 2015–17

This bar chart shows that, nationally, the rate of hospitalisation due to assault for Indigenous males was 8.8 per 1,000 and 9.8 per 1,000 for Indigenous females; in Remote and Very remote areas the rate was 29 per 1,000 for Indigenous females and around 20 per 1,000 for Indigenous males. This compared with 4 per 1,000 for Indigenous males and 3.5 per 1,000 for Indigenous females in Major cities.

Source: Table D2.10.6. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

There was a 16% increase in the rate of hospitalisation of Indigenous females attributed to assaults between 2004–05 and 2016–17 (from 8.7 to 10.4 per 100,000), in the six jurisdictions with Indigenous identification data of adequate quality (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory). For Indigenous males in the same period, there was no change to the hospitalisation rate. Note that caution should be used when comparing this data over time, as the admission practices and the classifications and coding standards can change (Table D2.10.11).

Compared with the national average, Outer regional and Remote areas of the Northern Territory had a larger increase in hospitalisations due to assault between 2004–05 and 2016–17. After adjusting for differences in the age structure between the two populations, the rate of hospitalisations due to assault for Indigenous Australians increased by 58% in Outer regional areas and by 20% in Remote areas. For non-Indigenous Australians in those areas, there was no change to the rates in Outer regional areas, but there was an increase by 47% in Remote areas (Table D2.10.11, Table D2.10.17, Table D2.10.18).

Between 2004–05 and 2016–17 non-fatal hospitalisations for family violence-related assaults increased from 4.2 per 1,000 population to 6.9 per 1,000 population for Indigenous females and from 1.6 per 1,000 population to 2.4 per 1,000 population for Indigenous males (excluding Tasmania and Australian Capital Territory).

Injury characteristics and circumstances

The most common injuries leading to hospitalisation of Indigenous Australians due to assault between July 2012 and June 2017 were open wounds (28% of total injuries; 8,701) and fractures (27%; 8,311). Non-Indigenous Australians were less likely than Indigenous Australians to be hospitalised for assault due to open wounds (17%) and more likely due to a fracture (37%) (Table D2.10.14).

The most common external causes of injury for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians hospitalised due to assault between July 2012 and June 2017 were bodily force (51% compared with 63%), blunt object (21% compared with 12%), and sharp object (14% compared with 11%) (Table D2.10.13, Figure 2.10.6).

Figure 2.10.6: Proportion of injuries in cases of hospitalisation due to assault, by most common categories of injury, 2012–17, and most common categories of external cause, 2015–17, by Indigenous status

This bar chart shows that, for Indigenous Australians, the most common external causes of assault were use of: bodily force (51%), blunt objects (21%), and sharp objects (14%). The most common injury sustained were open wound and fractures (28% and 27% respectively).

Source: Tables D2.10.13 and D2.10.14. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

The location of the assault was recorded in just over a quarter of hospitalisations of Indigenous Australians (27%; 8,141) and half of hospitalisations for non-Indigenous Australians (50%) between July 2012 and June 2017. When recorded, the home was the most common location for both Indigenous (56%; 4,555) and non-Indigenous Australians (44%). For Indigenous females nationally, just under 2 in 3 (65%; 3,045) occurred in the home, followed by the street and highway (9.3%; 432) and trade and service area (6.2%; 289). For Indigenous males, the most common location was also the home (43%; 1,510), followed by trade/service area (16%; 556) and street/highway (16%; 555).

When recorded, the home was the most common location regardless of remoteness for Indigenous Australians. For hospitalisations in Non-remote areas, 59% (2,953) of assaults took place in the home, compared to 52% (1,547) in Remote areas. For Indigenous females in Non-remote areas, 75% (1,904) of assaults occurred at home compared with 55% (1,099) in Remote areas. For Indigenous males, hospitalisation for assaults occurring at home were similar for Non-remote areas (43%; 1,049) and Remote areas (46%; 448) (Table D2.10.15).

Remote locations had a greater proportion of hospitalisations due to assaults occurring in specified areas outside of the five main areas (25%; 738), compared with Non-remote areas (9%; 441).

Family violence-related assaults

Hospital data from July 2012 to June 2017 shows that in the 60% (18,471) of assaults on Indigenous Australians that resulted in hospitalisation where the relationship of the perpetrator to the victim was specified, the victim knew the perpetrator in more than 8 out of 10 cases (85%; 15,591). In just under half of all specified cases (49%; 9,005) the perpetrator was a domestic partner, and in almost another third of the 18,471 cases (29%; 5,293), it was another family member. For non-Indigenous victims, 6 out of 10 cases (58%) knew the perpetrator; it was a domestic partner in a quarter of all cases (24%) and another family member in another 15% of all cases (Table D2.10.16, Figure 2.10.7).

Figure 2.10.7: Proportion of assault hospitalisations, by most common perpetrator relationship to victim categories, by Indigenous status, 2012–17

This bar chart shows that, for Indigenous Australians, 49% of hospitalisations due to assault were caused by partners, 25% by other family members, and 10% by unknown persons. For non-Indigenous Australians 42% were caused by partners, 12% by other family members, and 30% by unknown persons

Source: Table D2.10.16. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For Indigenous females, the recorded perpetrator was a domestic partner in 63% of cases (7,683), and another family member or parent in a quarter of cases (24%; 2,913), compared with 21% (1,322) and 38% (2,380) for Indigenous males (Table D2.10.16, Figure 2.10.8).

Figure 2.10.8: Proportion of assault hospitalisations, by most common perpetrator relationship to victim categories, by sex, Indigenous Australians 2012–17

This bar chart shows that, for Indigenous females, 63% of hospitalisations due to assault were caused by partners, 21% by other family members, and 5% by unknown persons, compared with 21% by caused partners, 34% by other family members, and 21% by unknown persons for Indigenous males.

Source: Table D2.10.16. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Between July 2015 to June 2017, the rates of family violence–related non-fatal hospitalisation for Indigenous Australians were 28 times that of for non-Indigenous Australians (4.4 compared with 0.2 per 1,000, respectively), after adjusting for differences in the age structure between the two populations.

For Indigenous females, the rates of non-fatal hospitalisation for family violence-related assaults were 31 times the rate for non-Indigenous females (6.5 compared with 0.2 per 1,000, respectively), and for Indigenous males, it was 23 times the rate for non-Indigenous males (2.3 compared with 0.1 per 1,000, respectively) (Figure 2.10.9). The Indigenous female population aged 25–34 had the highest rates of hospitalisations for non-fatal family violence-related assaults (14.2 per 1,000) (Table D2.10.35).

Figure 2.10.9: Age-standardised rate of family-violence-related non-fatal hospitalisation, by sex and Indigenous status, 2015–17

This bar chart shows that, overall the rate of family-violence-related non-fatal hospitalisations was 4.4 per 1,000 for Indigenous Australians and 0.2 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous Australians. For Indigenous females the rate was 6.5 per 1,000 and 2.3 per 1,000 for Indigenous males.

Source: Table D2.10.35. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Remote areas had the highest rates of non-fatal hospitalisation of Indigenous Australians for family violence-related assaults (14 per 1,000), while in Inner regional areas, this rate was the lowest (1.1 per 1,000). For Indigenous females living in Remote areas, the rate was 20 per 1,000, compared with 7.5 per 1,000 for Indigenous males (Table D2.10.37, Figure 2.10.10).

Figure 2.10.10: Age-standardised rate of family-violence-related non-fatal hospitalisation, Indigenous Australians, by remoteness and sex, 2015–17

This bar chart shows that, overall the rate of family-violence-related non-fatal hospitalisations for Indigenous males was 2.3 per 1,000 and 6.5 per 1,000 for Indigenous females. In Remote and Very remote areas, the rate was about 20 per 1,000 for Indigenous females and around 7 per 1,000 for Indigenous males.

Source: Table D2.10.37. AIHW analysis of National Hospital Morbidity Database.

By jurisdiction, the rates of non-fatal hospitalisation of Indigenous Australians for family violence-related assaults were at least twice as high in the Northern Territory compared with any other state—17 per 1,000—followed by 8.0 per 1,000 in Western Australia (Table D2.10.36).

The rates of non-fatal hospitalisations for family violence-related assaults for Indigenous Australians increased by 61% between 2004–05 and 2016–17 (from 3.0 to 4.7 per 1,000), compared with a 25% increase for non-Indigenous Australians (from 0.1 to 0.2 per 1,000) (in the six jurisdictions with Indigenous identification data of adequate quality) (Table D2.10.38).

Police assault records

In 2019, police in New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory recorded a combined 11,450 cases of assault where the victim was Indigenous. The rate of assaults on Indigenous Australians was higher than on non-Indigenous Australians in all three jurisdictions, ranging from 2.6 times as high in New South Wales (1,578 per 100,000 compared with 618 per 100,000, respectively) to 6.7 times as high in South Australia (5,160 per 100,000 compared with 769 per 100,000, respectively) (ABS 2019) (Figure 2.10.11).

Figure 2.10.11: Victims of assault, by Indigenous status, jurisdiction and sex, 2019

This bar chart shows that, the rates (per 100,000) of assault are higher for Indigenous males and females than their non-Indigenous counterparts in New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Rates for Indigenous females are higher than rates for Indigenous males in all three jurisdictions; In particular the highest rates for Indigenous females are in the Northern Territory (9,328 per 100,000) and South Australia (7,353 per 100,000).

Source: ABS 4510.0 Recorded Crime - Victims 2019 (ABS Table 17).

Females made up the majority of Indigenous victims of reported assaults in each of the three jurisdictions—64% (2,829) in New South Wales, 72% (1,672) in South Australia and 76% (3,553) in the Northern Territory. Among non-Indigenous victims of assault, males made up the majority in the Northern Territory (61%), 55% in New South Wales and 49% in South Australia (ABS 2019).

In the Northern Territory, Indigenous females were the recorded victim of an assault at 12 times the rate for non-Indigenous females (9,328 per 100,000 compared with 792 per 100,000, respectively). Indigenous males in the Northern Territory were the recorded victim of an assault at 2.5 times the rate for non-Indigenous males (2,895 per 100,000 compared with 1,148 per 100,000, respectively) (ABS 2019) (Figure 2.10.11).

For Indigenous females, partners or ex-partners were the most common offenders, responsible for 45% (1,267) of assaults in New South Wales, 62% (1,041) in South Australia and 62% (2,213) in the Northern Territory (ABS 2019).

Homicide

Homicide includes murder and manslaughter but excludes driving causing death.

In the period 2014 to 2018, 183 Indigenous Australians died due to homicide in the five jurisdictions with Indigenous identification data of adequate quality (New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory combined), compared with 715 deaths for non-Indigenous Australians. After adjusting for differences in the age structure between the two populations, this represented a rate 6.7 times as high for Indigenous Australians as non‑Indigenous Australians (5.8 compared with 0.9 per 100,000) (Table D2.10.7).

Between 1998 and 2018, after adjusting for differences in the age structure between the two populations, the annual homicide rate for Indigenous Australians decreased significantly by 41% (from 9.6 to 4.6 per 100,000), in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory combined. For non-Indigenous Australians the rate fell significantly by 43% (from 1.6 to 0.9 per 100,000, respectively).

From 2006 to 2018, the rates for death by homicide declined significantly by 33% for Indigenous Australians (from 8.9 to 4.6 per 100,000) and by 22% for non-Indigenous Australians (from 1.1 to 0.9 per 100,000) (Table D2.10.10, Figure 2.10.12).

Figure 2.10.12: Age-standardised rate of deaths due to homicide, by Indigenous status, 1998 to 2018

This line chart shows that, overall there has been a decrease in the rate (per 100,000) of deaths due to homicide for Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. For Indigenous Australians the rate decreased erratically from 9.6 per 100,000 in 1998 to 4.6 per 100,000 in 2018, while the rate for non-Indigenous Australians decreased steadily from 1.6 to 0.9 per 100,000 over the same period.

Source: Table D2.10.10. AIHW and ABS analysis of the ABS Causes of Death Collection.

For those aged 35–44, the rate of deaths due to homicide for Indigenous Australians was 10.4 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians (12.6 compared with 1.2 per 100,000, respectively) (Table D2.10.7).

Indigenous females died due to homicide at 8.3 times the rate of non-Indigenous females (4.5 compared with 0.5 per 100,000, respectively) (Table D2.10.8).

Of the five jurisdictions with Indigenous identification data of adequate quality, New South Wales had the lowest rate of deaths of Indigenous Australians by homicide (3.5 per 100,000, compared with 0.8 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous Australians) and South Australia had the highest rate (11.7 per 100,000, compared with 0.9 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous Australians) (Table D2.10.9, Figure 2.10.13).

Figure 2.10.13: Age-standardised rate of deaths by homicide, by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, NSW, Qld, WA, SA and NT, 2014–2018

This bar chart shows that for Indigenous Australians in the jurisdictions combined, the rate of deaths due to homicide was 5.8 per 100,000 compared with 0.9 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous Australians. For Indigenous Australians the rate was highest in South Australia (11.7 per 100,000), followed by the Northern Territory (11.2 per 100,000), and was lowest in New South Wales (3.5 per 100,000). For non-Indigenous Australians the rate ranged from 0.8 to 1 across the jurisdictions.

Source: Table D2.10.9. AIHW and ABS analysis of the ABS Causes of Death Collection.

An analysis of homicides in the period from 1989–90 to 2016–17 shows that in 87% (866) of homicides where the victim was an Indigenous Australian, the perpetrator was also an Indigenous Australian (Table D2.10.26). Of these cases, 69% (595) were domestic homicides (Table D2.10.27).

For homicides in the period from 1989–90 to 2016–17, 72% (819) of Indigenous offenders were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the incident, as were 71% (698) of Indigenous victims. These were more than double the proportions for non-Indigenous offenders (31%; 1,640) and victims (30%; 1,622) (Table D2.10.27).

Of homicides in the period from 2014–15 to 2016–17 in which the victim was Indigenous, 62% (53) were killed by a partner or family member and another 21% (18) by a friend or acquaintance. Non-Indigenous victims were less likely to have been killed by a partner or family member (41%; 242) and more likely to have been killed by a friend or acquaintance (30%; 174) (Table D2.10.33).

The number of homicide incidents in which both the victim and perpetrator were Indigenous Australians increased by remoteness, from 10% (85) in Major cities to 62% (536) in Remote areas. Conversely, the number of homicides among non-Indigenous Australians decreased with remoteness, from 59% (3,035) in Major cities to 6% (307) in Remote areas (Table D2.10.30).

Contact with police and the criminal justice system

In 2014–15, 48% (101,200) of Indigenous males aged 15 and over reported that they had been charged by the police in their lifetime, and 20% (43,300) had been arrested by the police in the last five years. Fifty-eight per cent (256,700) of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over reported that they trusted the police from their local area (ABS 2016) (Table 15.1, 15.3).

As at 30 June 2019, the majority of Indigenous prisoners (65%; 7,759) had been incarcerated due to violence-related offences and offences that cause harm (Table D2.11.21). See measure 2.11 Contact with the criminal justice system, for further data about rates of imprisonment, interactions with the police, and socioeconomic characteristics associated with prisoners.

What do research and evaluations tell us?

Experiences of violence are associated with adverse health effects on the victim, their children and their family. Some key findings related to the health effects of violence are outlined below, which are not specific to Indigenous Australians unless otherwise stated:

  • Throughout their lifetime, women who experience childhood abuse or household dysfunction have poorer health outcomes. These differences were evident across general health, physical function, bodily pain and mental health (Coles et al. 2015; Loxton et al. 2019).
  • Women who face domestic violence are found to have higher rates of miscarriage, pre-term birth and low birthweight babies (World Health Organization 2011). They are also more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer or sexually transmitted infections (AIHW 2019b; Loxton et al. 2009).
  • Women experiencing violence also have higher long-term primary, allied, and specialist health care costs, than women who have not had these experiences (Loxton et al. 2019).
  • Poor family functioning can have negative effects on children, including effects on brain development, which can affect learning, behaviour and health. Children may also experience depression, anxiety, cognitive and developmental delays, and poor academic performance (Atkinson 2013; Carpenter & Stacks 2009; Edleson 1999; Humphreys et al. 2008; Kitzmann et al. 2003; Sety 2011).
  • Physical violence (not family-specific) negatively affects the life satisfaction of both women and men and reduces the life satisfaction of Indigenous Australian women more than Indigenous men (Jayasinghe et al. 2020).
  • Experiencing family violence can affect a person’s education, employment, economic security and housing (AIHW 2018; Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2016).

As acknowledged by several prime ministers, Indigenous Australian families and family structures were severely damaged by past government policies and the colonial legacy (Atkinson 2013; Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2016; Haebich 2000), the consequences of which are still evident.

Some of the factors believed to contribute to the high rates of violence within Indigenous communities include marginalisation and dispossession, the loss of land and traditional culture, the breakdown of community kinship systems and Aboriginal law, entrenched poverty, racism, alcohol and drug abuse, the effects of institutionalisation and removal policies; and the ‘redundancy’ of the traditional Aboriginal male role and status, compensated for by an aggressive assertion of male rights over women and children (Blagg 1999).

Our Watch is a non-Indigenous organisation that provides resources and tools to assist Australian communities to address violence against women and children, including but not limited to Indigenous Australians. Reports published by Our Watch in 2018 focused on Indigenous Australian women and the drivers of violence experienced by them, including analysis of the ongoing effects of colonisation both within and from outside Indigenous communities, the ways in which non-Indigenous Australians continue forms of racism and violence, and gender specific factors that intersect with the aforementioned factors in different ways to drive violence (Our Watch 2018a, 2018b).

  • For Indigenous Australians ongoing effects of colonisation include: intergenerational and collective trauma; systemic oppression, disempowerment, and racism; destruction/disruption of traditional cultures, relationships and community norms about violence; personal experience of violence; and the condoning of violence within Indigenous communities.
  • Non-Indigenous Australians perpetuate the effects of colonisation through: racialised structural inequalities of power; entrenched racism in social norms, attitudes and practices; racist violence; and condoning of, and insufficient accountability for, violence against Indigenous Australians.
  • Gender-specific factors caused by socially entrenched gender inequality can intersect with the factors above to drive violence such as: the disruption to traditional culture; rigid male and female roles; imposed colonial patriarchy; and male decision-making power.

The evidence on what works in reducing violence among Indigenous Australians remains inconclusive. However, from the few adequate evaluations of family violence and community patrol programs, some successful principles are clear.

Aspects of successful family violence programs include community involvement in service planning; engagement and relationship building (which takes time); consideration of cultural factors; integrated service delivery; planning for long-term sustainability; and having a holistic focus and flexible, trauma-informed approaches. The barriers to effective programs include the lack of integrated and coordinated service delivery practices; unrealistic expectations and timelines set by governments and the community; applying a simplistic approach to policy development to deal with entrenched issues; operating with a lack of cultural awareness; and unsustainable responses that rely solely on short-term government funding (Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2016).

Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLS) funded by the Australian Government aim to improve access to justice for victims of violence and improve safety through delivering culturally safe legal assistance, counselling, court support, education and community-based prevention services to change attitudes and behaviours regarding family violence. A recent impact evaluation showed that despite a lack of quantifiable data as to the extent of success, clear outcomes in some cases included an improved understanding of the justice system by victims; reduced drop-out of justice processes by victims; successful prosecutions and sentencing of perpetrators; improved restraining order outcomes; and improvements in wellbeing among victims. However, varied service offerings and incomplete data collection hampered the ability to quantify and compare outcomes across the services. Due to the scale of community violence and related factors, the minimum requirements in the funding contracts for the education and early intervention activities provided by FVPLSs were not adequate to generate measurable outcomes (Charles Darwin University Northern Institute 2019).

Community patrols are one strategy instigated by some Indigenous communities for improving safety, sometimes known as a night patrol, foot patrol, street patrol, youth or women’s patrol. They have a diverse range of functions with patrols reflecting the different needs of local communities in remote and non-remote settings. Patrols are non-coercive and aim to assist community members at risk from harm. They also aim to de-escalate tensions, divert people from situations that could lead to contact with the criminal justice system and connect people with support services such as sobering-up shelters or women’s refuges.

Successful community patrols tend to benefit from community involvement and ownership, and strong collaboration with (but independence from) police and relationships with a network of community services. Other elements that appear to be important for the success of patrols include long-term government support, endorsement by key community members, good community governance, social cohesion and ensuring that the patrol is part of a holistic approach (Beacroft et al. 2011; Blagg 2007). Patrols cannot work in isolation. They often cooperate closely with other community programs and initiatives such as women’s and youth refuges, health clinics and hospitals, safe houses, sobering-up shelters, mediation programs, community justice groups, alcohol and other substance abuse support services, youth centres, and outstations and homelands initiatives (Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2013).

Implications

The data from the Health Survey show that the majority of Indigenous Australians do not experience physical or threatened harm. However, for those that do, the effects can be severe and long-lasting. The nature of the effect is different for males and females, and the prevalence differs by age and remoteness. However, regardless of gender, age or remoteness, victims need access to appropriate, trauma-informed and culturally safe care and support.

The data also shows associations between experiences of physical or threatened harm and other social determinants such as low income, unemployment, alcohol and substance use. These associations reflect entrenched disadvantage and the intergenerational transmission of poverty, not unique to Indigenous Australians (AIHW 2017).

The monitoring of statistics regarding personal, family and community safety has an important role for providing evidence to assist targeting efforts to assist communities, and to stimulate research into ways to reduce violence, improve safety, and improve services for victims. However, it is also important to note that this statistical catalogue of the level of violence is not intended to further entrench a deficit approach to addressing the issue by Australian governments. It establishes a statistical context based on what is currently collected across datasets that measure different concepts and interactions with different services or systems. What should not be overlooked is the capability, strength and resilience of Indigenous Australians in finding solutions to these issues for their communities. There is also a need to consider how non-Indigenous Australians and institutions have contributed to the causes of violence.

The 2011 Social Justice Report highlighted that lateral violence is intrinsically linked to disadvantage and the lack of participation in decision-making, false divisions over identity, and tension over who speaks for community and who participates in government consultations. The Social Justice Report urged governments to move from characterising Indigenous Australians as being dysfunctional and instead see Indigenous Australians as capable and resilient. Governments should work in ways that empower Indigenous Australians as they pursue solutions to these problems. A human-rights based framework for addressing lateral violence could offer solutions and should be based on the following principles: self-determination, participation in decision-making, non-discrimination and equality, and respect for and protection of culture (AHRC 2011).

Actions should address the ongoing impact of colonisation for Indigenous Australians (Our Watch 2018b). This could include addressing intergenerational trauma through healing strategies; strengthening connection to culture, language, knowledge and cultural identity; strengthening support for families; implementing specific initiatives for Indigenous women and girls; implementing targeted initiatives for Indigenous men and boys; challenging the condoning of violence in Indigenous communities; having a judicial system that ensures equality in law and access to justice; and reducing the rate of incarceration (Our Watch 2018a, 2018b).

Non-Indigenous Australians and institutions have a role in addressing the effects of colonisation. For example, challenging and preventing all forms of racism; increasing non-Indigenous Australians’ understanding of Indigenous culture; increasing the representation of Indigenous Australians in decision-making; identifying and amending racist and discriminatory laws, policies and institutional practices; and challenging the condoning of violence against Indigenous Australians (Our Watch 2018a, 2018b). Violence does not only occur between Indigenous Australians. The homicide data illustrates that violence against Indigenous Australians perpetrated by non‑Indigenous Australians is real and should not be dismissed.

Actions taken to address violence against women should challenge racist and sexist attitudes and social norms (Our Watch 2018a, 2018b). These programs should take into consideration the perspective of Indigenous women. As pointed out by Nancarrow (2006), there is a split in the views among Indigenous and non-Indigenous women on the use of the criminal justice system and restorative justice in responding to violence (Nancarrow 2006). Indigenous women have expressed that the criminal justice system tends to reinforce state control and force the separation of Indigenous people. The overarching goal should be to end violence against women and children through empowerment, unity, and culturally relevant justice initiatives. For more information on justice initiatives see measure 2.11 Contact with the criminal justice system.

Improving the quality of Indigenous status identification across all relevant data sets should continue to be a priority. Comprehensive information on Indigenous family violence is limited by under-reporting by victims (for example, potentially due to the lack of culturally appropriate services, language differences and lack of trust in police (Mitra-Kahn et al. 2016; Olsen & Lovett 2016)); lack of appropriate screening and identification of family and domestic violence incidents by service providers; incomplete identification of gender and inability to disaggregate data to produce reliable estimates to show geographical variation. There is a lack of nationally comparable data on family violence from police, courts, health and welfare sources (AIHW 2018).

There are few robust formal evaluations of family violence prevention programs (Cripps & Davis 2012). Evaluations lack comparison groups and detailed assessments of the effects of programs on subsequent rates of violence. The use of different outcome measures across studies makes it difficult to compare results (Day et al. 2013). There have been few published, rigorous, multi-stage evaluations of programs designed to reduce family violence in Indigenous communities. Little research has been done to explore the variation in violence levels and relative success of prevention programs (AIHW 2018).

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap has been developed in partnership between all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. This new agreement outlines a better way of working, with governments working in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to obtain better outcomes. The National Agreement sets out ambitious targets and new priority reforms that will change the way governments work to improve life outcomes experienced by Indigenous Australians. The National Agreement specifically outlines the following outcome and target to direct policy attention and monitor progress:

  • Outcome 13—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and households are safe.
    • Target—A significant and sustained reduction in violence and abuse against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children towards zero.
    • At the time of writing, the parties to the agreement are also giving further consideration to this target, including related definitions and data issues and whether indicators require updating.

The policy context is at Policies and strategies.

References

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