Health, land, conflict and culture: Dialogue deepens community health ties

Professor Paul Komesaroff

Professor Paul Komesaroff

By Professor Paul Komesaroff

It is now widely recognised that the health of Aboriginal people is significantly worse than that of other groups in Australia.

Indigenous people have life expectancies about 18 to 19 years less than those of non-Indigenous people. Infant mortality rates are three times higher than the national average. Indigenous people are nearly twice as likely to be admitted to hospital than non-Indigenous people. Major health issues include high rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, many infections and mental illness, as well the effects of smoking, poor diet, excessive drug and alcohol use, and poor child and maternal health.

In 2007 the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle ('Little Children are Sacred’) report of the ‘Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse’ examined the underlying dimensions and causes of the health issues confronting Aboriginal people. It proposed a range of solutions based on the development of community capacity, resources and structures. Although the report and its conclusions received wide acclaim, there has been no attempt at government level to implement a single one of its recommendations.

During July I will be joining a group of Israeli Jews and Palestinians meeting with local Indigenous communities in Western Victoria and Central Australia to discuss how to build health care responses to address their common concerns.

The delegation, brought to Australia by Global Reconciliation, an international coalition based at Monash and RMIT Universities, will share their experiences in the delivery of health services in their home country.

The Middle East has been characterised by conflict and division, which have also greatly affected the health of the communities living there. While there are obvious differences between the health conditions of the populations of this region and of Australian Aboriginal people, there are also some striking parallels.

In both, health issues are tightly bound up with culture and ethnicity and affected by social dislocation, internal stress and a hostile external political environment. In both, the attachment to land and unresolved issues regarding access to and ownership of land have played a decisive role. And in both, poverty, poor nutrition, unemployment and substance abuse, as well as high prevalence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and infections remain major health issues. In addition, like Australia, the Middle East has been the site of innovative responses to health care needs and models of health care development which draw on and seek to develop community resources and capacity.

Using the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report as a key reference, the group will seek to develop specific projects in the fields of health, justice, education and spirituality. It will establish continuing exchanges and educational visits involving people from all three communities. 

Through this process, we hope to establish an ongoing framework whereby the experience and wisdom acquired by years of struggle in disparate but parallel geographical and cultural settings can be freely shared. It will be done with a view to developing achievable models for enhancing health and wellbeing based on community cooperation and development.

The project has been developed by Monash University in partnership with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, the Lowitja Institute, the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Australian-Palestinian Partnerships for Education and Health, and has been made possible by the generous support of the National Australia Bank.

Global Reconciliation is involved in a wide range of projects around the world that aim to foster mutual understanding through building community involvement and local capacity and establishing strategies for overcoming conflict.