A systematic literature search of responses to Indigenous sexual assault

McCalman, Janya, Bridge, Francesca, Tsey, Komla, Bainbridge, Roxanne, and Whiteside, Mary (2013) A systematic literature search of responses to Indigenous sexual assault. Report. UNSPECIFIED. (Unpublished)

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Scope of Review

This report presents the results of a systematic search of the peer reviewed and grey literature, aimed at identifying studies that describe or evaluate responses to the sexual assault of Indigenous Australians, for the period 1992 to 2012 (inclusive). It describes the key characteristics of studies and critiques their methodology. The implications of overall findings for sexual assault programs and policies targeting Australian Indigenous communities are discussed.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual acts against their will or without their consent, or if a child or young person under 18 is exposed to sexual activities. Sexual assault is a crime. The terms used in the community to describe the different forms of sexual assault are different from the legal terms used to prosecute offenders in the courts (NSW Government, Justice and Attorney Generals, 2012).


A qualified librarian systematically searched seven electronic databases and seven websites for peer reviewed and grey literature publications relating to responses to the sexual assault of Indigenous Australians, identifying 3714 publications. Examination of the abstracts of these 3714 publications identified only 23 Australian publications that described or evaluated responses to Indigenous Australian sexual assault.

Key Results

Only six of the publications were peer reviewed (including 5 journal articles and one book chapter) while 17 were found in the grey literature (government reports, fact sheets, newsletters etc.). Despite, the high prevalence of sexual assault in Indigenous Australian communities, and high levels of concern by Indigenous women and men, the media, governments and non-government services (e.g.Government of Western Australia, 2002; NSW Ombudsman, 2012), we found no studies that evaluated the effects of sexual assault responses. This means that we do not know what works in effectively responding to sexual assault affecting Indigenous Australians. We found only four studies that provided descriptions of programs and one measurement study. Sixteen studies described problems associated with sexual assault and recommended strategies in response. The other two provided reviews of the Indigenous sexual assault literature.

The main responses to sexual assault reported across the 23 publications were legal justice system (n= 6 studies), media (n= 2 studies), community-based (n= 7 studies) and mainstream services (n= 8 studies). The legal justice studies described police and justice services that responded to the perpetrators of Indigenous sexual assault. The media studies described how the mainstream media has responded to Indigenous sexual assault. The community studies described Indigenous community-based responses, and the mainstream service studies described the responses of mainstream health, child protection, specialist sexual assault and other services.

Key Findings

In summary, there are four key findings of this review. First, there is a complete lack of evidence from published peer review or grey literature studies on what works in responding to Indigenous sexual assault. Further, there is a paucity of program descriptions to inform practitioners of potential strategies that could be used to respond. We found only four studies that described programs, two of which were legal justice responses for perpetrators; and two which described responses for victims/survivors of sexual abuse (the Indigenous-developed We-Ali and Family Wellbeing Programs, and an analysis of the feasibility and acceptability of adapting a Canadian Indigenous program). Hence there is currently insufficient evidence from published peer review or grey literature studies of sexual assault responses targeting Indigenous Australians to confidently allow prescriptive determination of sexual assault programs or policies.

Second, related to the first point, only two of the studies focussed on programs delivered at a local level. Most described macro state-wide, cross-state or national strategic plans and approaches. Yet one of the principles expounded by studies was the need for community development approaches within local communities (Gordon, 2002; Cox, 2008; Willis, 2010). Without evidence for what works at local levels, there is no guidance upon which services can make decisions about particular responses to sexual assault.

Third, the literature documented four main types of response to Indigenous sexual assault: legal justice responses to perpetrators, media responses, community-based responses and mainstream service responses. Although there was considerable overlap between these categories, differentiating these response types suggested the importance of coordinating responses to service delivery by the broad range of stakeholders involved in responding to Indigenous sexual assault (Cripps & Miller, 2009; Cox, 2008, Thorpe, 2004; Thomas, 1992; Victorian Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service, 2010).

Fourth, the literature suggests that multi-faceted approaches combining one or more individual strategies, tailored to specific communities, and targeting both the victims/survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault offer considerable promise for responding to sexual assault. Promising responses that can be combined into a coherent response, as opposed to being independently implemented, include:

• Designating Indigenous sexual abuse as a matter of urgent national importance with a collaborative partnership developed between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to address the issue, and the translation of policy initiatives into dedicated and sustained funding (Wild and Anderson, 2007; Government of Western Australia, 2002; Keel, 2004; Thorpe, 2004, Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce 2006);

• A coordinated approach to service delivery with intersecting legal, media, community-based and mainstream services (Cripps and Miller, 2009; Cox, 2008, Thorpe, 2004; Thomas, 1992; Victorian Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service, 2010);

• Community development approaches which recognise local diversity, engage Indigenous communities in a community-focussed systemic approach, and implement community-defined priority services and programs (Gordon, 2002; Cox, 2008; Willis, 2010);

• Prioritisation of Indigenous Australian-developed programs (Atkinson et al., 2010; Willis, 2010) or tailoring strategies prior to their implementation to improve their acceptability to Indigenous peoples (Cripps, 2008; NSW Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006);

• Employment of Indigenous workers and cross-cultural training for non-Indigenous staff of Indigenous and mainstream services for Indigenous victims/survivors of sexual assault (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce 2006; Cripps and Miller, 2009; Victorian Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service, 2010; Government of Western Australia, 2002; Greer, 1997; Gordon, 2002);

• Indigenous justice models for Indigenous perpetrators of sexual assault which draw from both restorative and conventional criminal justice models and ensure safety and compliance (Marchetti, 2010; Stubbs, 2000), and voluntary group discussion programs for sex offenders (McCallum & Castillon, 1999);

• Consistent frameworks for collecting data about sexual assault that are adopted by all relevant agencies (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Thorpe, 2004; Cripps & Miller, 2009);

• Responsible reporting of Indigenous sexual assault in the mainstream media (Due, 2012); and

• Evaluation of service responses for Indigenous people (Cox, 2008, Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006).


There is currently insufficient evidence from published studies of sexual assault responses targeting Indigenous peoples to confidently allow prescriptive determination of policies or programs. This has two major implications. Firstly, an evidence-informed practice would take into account the main findings from this systematic review of the literature. Specifically, programs and policies are most likely to be effective if they comprise multiple components and take account of the local diversity of specific communities (as opposed to being generic for all communities). Second, there is an urgent need to develop evidence-based programs and evaluate extant programs and policies. Such evaluations can be designed with researchers with relevant skills and need not be expensive if they occur simultaneously with the development and implementation of a policy or program.

Item ID: 25208
Item Type: Report (Report)
Keywords: Indigenous, sexual assault, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander
Funders: Family Planning Queensland
Date Deposited: 26 Sep 2013 23:42
FoR Codes: 13 EDUCATION > 1303 Specialist Studies in Education > 130399 Specialist Studies in Education not elsewhere classified @ 100%
SEO Codes: 92 HEALTH > 9203 Indigenous Health > 920301 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health - Determinants of Health @ 100%
Downloads: Total: 6
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