Frank Spry: Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation, Nhulunbuy, NT
The decline in men's authority and control, a process of disempowerment, has been accompanied by a deterioration in their health and spiritual wellbeing. At the same time and especially in recent years there has been an upsurge in women's assertiveness and an advance by default into men's role. This occurred as the delivery of government health programs have been refashioned to better suit women's needs. The result of this development has exacerbated men's disempowerment, and further alienated men from community life.
In the context of the colonial 'takeover', men have been sidelined as leaders, and their traditional role as community decision makers replaced by government structures and government officials. This 'taking over' of men's role has been a traumatising experience which has left indigenous men confused, alienated and dejected.
The taking away of men's role has also contributed in a significant way to the breakdown and collapse of community life, and while all community members feel the effects, the process has impacted most negatively on male members of the community.
Aboriginal men are extremely concerned about the health problems of their communities, and the state of men's health and well-being. They also feel a sense of powerlessness when faced with some of the big problems that they are unable to do anything about.
Existing health programs are in many ways incompatible with the way in which Aboriginal men are required, by law, to lead their life. These programs are culturally inappropriate, inaccessible and, as a consequence, do not work. For example, the majority of health programs are delivered by female aboriginal health workers and female nurses in almost all of the aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Specific programs like STD/AIDS, family planning, nutrition, primary and preventative health, in fact most of the program areas are not male focused and have a disempowering effect on Aboriginal men.
Indigenous men's health is not just about intervention by medical models, recognition of the socio-cultural, environmental and political aspects of indigenous men's health is critical in terms of success.
The role of indigenous men in Aboriginal society has been significantly diminished as a result of the process of colonisation. This has contributed in a significant way to the breakdown and collapse of Aboriginal society and community life as it is today. The impact on Aboriginal men has been both negative and devastating, for example, chronic alcoholism, family violence, high imprisonment rates, deaths in custody, youth suicide and anti-social behaviour are just a few of the negative manifestations being witnessed today.
At two recent conferences funded by the Territory Health Services, Aboriginal men testified to the loss of their own self-esteem, they emphasised the importance of returning to traditional, cultural and spiritual values that can provide strength. Community men stood up and told their individual stories and the urgency that is needed to put into action a plan to improve their health and spiritual well being.
Empowerment of Aboriginal men and their communities is crucial to the raising of men's self-esteem, quality of life, their health status and spiritual well being. Indigenous men must take a leading role in improving their own health status and that of their communities. Community involvement, consultation and providing the opportunity for men to define and take control of the issues that affect them is paramount to achieving positive and successful outcomes.
Fundamental and Contributing Factors
There are many issues and factors that contribute to the current situation in terms of Aboriginal Men's health. The following diagram illustrates fundamental underpinning factors that need to be considered as having a significant impact on men's health.
Diagram by Frank Spry 1998
Some of the links that hold Aboriginal society and culture together, represented in this diagram have been damaged, or broken. Men who have had a central role and responsibility in maintaining these links, have been cut off and alienated. This has resulted in 'spiritual imbalance', loss of identity and purpose, diminished roles and responsibilities, and a lack of respect and authority. Elders are unable to maintain control and authority because young men are rebelling and show no respect.
The Uncle-Nephew relationship has a direct relationship to restoring the broken and severed links in this diagram.
What is Uncle-Nephew Relationship
'Uncle-Nephew' approach can be used as a strategy to deal with Aboriginal men's issues. Uncle-Nephew is a cultural way of teaching and relating through family kinship and ceremonial responsibility. It supports and affirms values and beliefs that are fundamental to Aboriginal men's view of the world, and Aboriginal society. (The Strong Women, Strong Culture, Strong Babies is founded on similar fundamental concepts)
Empowering 'Elders' (uncles/Men) to take control, leadership and responsibility is an important process in terms of dealing with their own health.
'Uncle-Nephew relationship' is a system based on the obligations of the Mothers-Brother (Uncle) to her son (Nephew). The relationship between the Uncle and Nephew is very strong, at times closer and more important than the Father- Son relationship.
The 'Uncle-Nephew relationship' is based on an Aboriginal cultural framework. It has the potential to resolve very many issues including dealing with conflict situations. 'Uncle-Nephew' is put into action by senior men and elders who have the authority to impose traditional law and negotiate outcomes.
Men's Health Programs could be facilitated through the 'Uncle-Nephew' framework. Some of these programs might include; Nutrition, Family/Domestic Violence, Substance Abuse (petrol sniffing), Weight loss programs such as Gut Busters, Well Men's Checks, Diabetes, Tobacco, etc.
The Aboriginal Men's Health Council have recommended and support the concept of Men's Centres. They are extremely important and central in terms of providing a 'place' where men can gather, maintain cultural activities and encourage younger men (Uncle/Nephew) in men's matters. Men's Centre's can also be important in terms of facilitating all kinds of activities including health issues that men need to be made aware of.
Finally an Uncle/Nephew approach is about engaging Aboriginal men, Grandmothers, families and the community through a system that is already in existence and understood. It is a system that is founded on relationships and family, and it encourages commitment to cultural values and beliefs, and responsibility to family and community.
The empowerment of Aboriginal men and their communities is crucial to the raising of men's health status. Indigenous men must take a leading role in improving their health status and that of their communities. Community involvement, consultation and providing the opportunity for men to define and take control of the issues that affect them is paramount to achieving positive outcomes.
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