Women convene for West Kimberley Strong Women Business Gathering at Birdwood Downs station

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On a remote station nestled in the outback of the Kimberley, women from around the region gathered on Friday and Saturday.  

They quietly wove baskets from straw, boiled down beeswax into bush medijin and beat drums in a pattern that echoed across the quiet grounds of the Birdwood Downs station, about 20 kilometres from Derby.

The West Kimberley Strong Women Business Gathering is a unique event run by local Aboriginal corporation Winun Ngari. 

Women from Fitzroy Crossing, Kununurra, Halls Creek, Derby, Broome and all communities in between converge for a weekend to take part.

The event invites diversity, with about 200 women attending the event throughout Friday and Saturday night, and paints its main goal as “gathering”; a weekend for all women to feel welcome and safe in a region that has one of the highest domestic violence rates in the state.

Nyikina, Walmatjarri, Nyul Nyul Elder Leena Fraser Buckle helped open the event, and said her main goal for the weekend was to invite young and old to share their stories and connect. 

Women sit on the floor and in chairs as they listen to a speaker
Women gather to listen to the opening speech at Birdwood Downs Station.(ABC Kimberley: Hannah Barry)

She told a story of growing up on a station in the remote Kimberley and riding horses as a five-year-old.

She said even though she was told to stop by her father as her “legs were too short”, she went on to later teach ringers and visitors at the station how to ride.

For her, the women’s gathering is about empowering younger women and acknowledging the work done by the older generation.

“It’s about getting [the young people] motivated and to get them [proud] about what they’ve done in their lives, and their achievements,” she said.

It is a theme Member for the Kimberley Divina D’Anna also opened the event with, recounting her own story on her journey to becoming a state parliament MP.

An Indigenous woman in a black shirt with long dark hair and glasses on her head holds a microphone
Member for the Kimberley Divina D’Anna attended the event.(ABC Kimberley: Hannah Barry)

“One of the things that really shaped me throughout my career was advocating and talking up for those who don’t have voices – for those who are overlooked or aren’t loud enough to be heard.

“My passion is about encouraging young people to build their strengths, motivate their voice and provide opportunities to use it.”

Women sit around holding yarn as they weave colourful baskets
Women weave baskets together in a quiet corner of the grounds.(ABC Kimberley: Hannah Barry)

The workshops throughout the two days focused strongly on building the confidence of young girls in particular, with older women frequently asking them to speak up and hold a microphone as they talked about themselves.

Eliana, a 10-year-old girl from Mowanjum, was brought to the event by her mother and attended the wildly popular bush medicine workshop.

A young girl in a blue and orange long sleeve shirt smiles as she holds a branch of rosella
Mowanjum girl Eliana  has learnt about bush medicine from elderly women from Fitzroy Crossing.(ABC Kimberley: Hannah Barry)

Bunaba woman Diane Chungai helped run the bush medicine event, and said it was heartening to see so many young girls come to her workshop. 

An Indigenous woman with an orange bandana and shirt holds a bunch of cockroach bush
Ms Chungai walked attendees through how to make ointments for joint inflammation, mosquito bites, and chapped lips.(ABC Kimberley: Hannah Barry)

“We’d like these young people to see what we do, because most of our young people don’t follow us,” she said.

“I feel sad for them because they’re missing out on learning the cultural knowledge we learnt from our old people – especially bush medicine.

The event came at a time of turmoil in the Kimberley, where youth crime and alcohol and drug use has run rampant in the region due to systemic social disadvantage.

The event also holds space for women the learn about trauma, and a yarning circle invites anyone with a strong feeling to come forward.

A black chalkboard sign with orange writing encouraging women to come and share their feelings
A workshop encouraging women to speak out.(ABC Kimberley: Hannah Barry)

Late on the Friday night, at a workshop held around a campfire with famous blues musician Olive Knight in attendance, the women spoke frankly about the issues the community had faced in recent years. 

They spoke about issues including horrific acts of sexual assault, domestic violence and the experience their parents had growing up in the Kimberley.

Winun Ngari chief executive Sonia Tait said the event was an important place for women to connect and talk, and providing somewhere safe for them to do so was integral to the event’s success.

A smiling woman with short blonde hair stands under the event's registration tent
Winun Ngari chief executive Sonia Tait.(ABC Kimberley: Hannah Barry)

“[It’s important] to have the opportunity to create that [safe] space, and have the opportunity to bring women from all over the Kimberleys and further together,” she said.

“It’s also [an opportunity] to assist women in feeling comfortable enough to use their voice and share their experiences, and give those that aren’t as confident, a little bit more exposure and to become a little bit more confident themselves.

“Usually a lot of us mob only catch up around sorry time, around funerals when someone’s passed; it’s very rare we have the opportunity to come together for something as positive and happy as this.”

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The new leadership program for young Indigenous women.(Erin Parke)