Engaging with the political system can be daunting for most people, but with the help of Oxfam’s Straight Talk program, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women like Mayatili Marika are finding their voice and making an impact.
When Mayatili Marika speaks of her home country on the pristine sandy shores of Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, her eyes soften and her voice goes quiet.
“It’s the essence of who I am,” she says after a pause. “For Yolngu people, land is identity. We are the land and the land is us. It’s the one place in the world I feel whole … It’s where my spirit is really.”
Dividing her time between Yirrkala and Melbourne, where she studied law and worked for the University of Melbourne, Mayatili comes from a long line of passionate advocates for Indigenous issues. So when a friend recommended that Mayatili sign up for Oxfam’s Straight Talk program, which empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to learn about the political system, she knew it would be a perfect opportunity to expand on her knowledge and help other women in her community have their voices heard as well.
“Indigenous women are the ones who, literally and metaphorically, keep the home fires burning,” she said.
“They are multi-taskers from the moment they come into the world. Add on top of that being mothers and grandmothers, sisters, wives and aunties, they’ve been lobbying since day dot.
“Yolngu society is patrilineal. So to me, it spoke volumes of how much women … would benefit from being given the opportunity to learn skills and tools to empower themselves, and to have more understanding and consciousness of the political system.”
Mayatili says the skills she learned at Straight Talk gave her the confidence to deliver a speech at the International Indigenous Health Conference in Canada last year. And as coordinator of this year’s Garma Festival — the biggest Indigenous festival in Australia — Mayatili has been instrumental in recruiting more women in Arnhem Land to become Straight Talkers themselves.
“There was a sense of solidarity, a sense of safeness that Straight Talk gives women; the opportunity to feel empowered to share their stories … It’s a very powerful forum, and a wonderful way to build on one’s own confidence and ability to talk and share.
“I can just see how much people would benefit from … connecting with other like-minded women from around Australia, share their stories and just get that sense of being part of something bigger. I think it’s really important.