Galiwin’ku Women Speak Up to the UN for Recognition of Yolŋu Law

Earlier this year, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights came to Australia on her first official visit to discuss rights issues with the Government, the Australian Human Rights Commission, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and non-governmental organizations. During her visit to Darwin, she met with Aboriginal leaders. Women from Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island, North East Arnhem Land) who are part of the Makarr Dhuni Forum wrote this letter together to Ms Pillay:

13th May 2011

Dear Navi Pillay,

RE: Yolngu Madayin Rom (sacred law) governing Yolngu women in North East Arnhem Land.

We the Yolngu  women of Galiwin’ku, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia wish to inform you of our opinions about women’s rights and responsibilities under our Yolngu law.

In our culture, the symbol of a woman is a sacred and holy dilli bag. This bag carries the law in the same way as a woman carries her child in her womb. Women therefore are carrying and maintaining the discipline, the moral teaching and the law in our community. For this reason women are very highly respected and seen as holy.  Their bodies are seen as sacred, as are their children according to the djalkirri rom (foundation law).


Nyomba Gandangu – wearing the dilly bag at the closing of the Yolngu Ngarra (parliamentary sitting), before assenting to the law.Nimbi Gandangu – wearing the dilly bag at the closing of the Yolngu Ngarra (Parliamentary sitting), before assenting to the law. Photo used with permission. Copyright Makarr Dhuni Forum

One of the practices that protects women and children is the relationship with our mother’s mother’s clan (mari pulu). This clan acts as an asylum or safe house for anyone who wishes to escape persecution or violence.  The perpetrators understand that they are not allowed to set foot in that area. The maris will act as a lawyer /mediator to resolve the issues. Another layer of this complex legal system involves the Djungaya (manager/facilitator) who polices the implementation of the resolution.

We are concerned that our Federal and Territory Governments are not acknowledging that we are still subject to our own djalkirri rom (foundation law) created by Wangarr (God) since time immemorial.  For this reason we wish to reassure you that there are many laws, practices and protocols that we must adhere to as strong Yolngu women according to the djalkirri rom. It is this law that provides safety and protection for all Yolngu. Yolngu law is within our body, our bones, our blood, connecting everything. It is sacred, as our lives and bodies are sacred, connecting us to the land.

We thank you for taking an interest in our situation and feel hopeful about your visit to Darwin.

Kind Regards,

Nyomba Gandangu

Co-chairperson of the Makarr Dhuni Forum (the second tier of the Yolngu Ngarra – Parliament, representing all of the clans of Elcho Island)

On behalf of The Makarr Dhuni Women’s Forum

To read Navi Pillay’s response to her visit to Australia, see:

The AHED Project supports the Makarr Dhuni Forum

About Richard Trudgen

Richard was born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner. He moved to Arnhem Land in the NT in 1973 and became a community worker, learning to speak Djambarrpuyŋu. Has now worked with Yolŋu people for over 45 years. He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for 10 years during which time he developed discovery education methodology with Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and also established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He is the author of Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and facilitated ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars, and delivered corporate training across Australia. He is currently the CEO of Why Warriors Pty Ltd, a community development social enterprise organisation working with Yolngu people. He spends his day writing, producing podcasts and building online learning platforms, producing videos and working face to face with Yolngu. He is also involved in building online cross-cultural training material to build understanding between Indigenous peoples and the Dominant Culture.

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