In the first three days of March 2011, 32 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women from urban, rural, remote and very remote communities Australia wide, either working or interested in working in health and aged between 18-28 converged at the Jasper Hotel in Melbourne to attend Australia’s first ever Indigenous Women’s Sexual Health Forum, the ‘SNAKE Forum: Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Sexual and Reporductive Health and Rights’, hosted by Marie Stopes Australia (MSA). The aim was to build skills and knowledge around the areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights in an Indigenous context for the purpose of promoting positive changes in health within Community.

The days were split into themes; ‘Sexual and Reproductive Rights’, ‘Sexual and Reproductive Health’ and ‘Tools for Empowerment’ and involved sessions run by various organisations or people involved in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. These included the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), Family Planning Victoria (FPV), the Victorian Indigenous Youth Advisory Council (VIYAC), Melbourne Sexual Health Centre (MSHC), Hep C Council Victoria, PapScreen Victoria, the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS), the Action Centre (FPV associated), Bliss For Women, the Victorian Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services (FVPLS), the comedienne Nelly Thomas, as well as MSA’s SNAKE Condoms itself.

Each presenter ran a one hour session, either lecture style or more interactively and informally on the subjects related to the day theme. Overall these were extremely well received, in particular the session on ‘Lateral Violence’ by Peter Waples-Crowe (VACCHO), ‘Indigenous Youth Advocacy and Engagement’ by Clarisse Slater (VIYAC), the ‘No Means No’ comedy excerpts by Nelly Thomas and co, ‘Sharing Success Stories’ led by Bev Greet (MSA), ‘Making Safe Sex Fun’ by Maureen Matthews (Bliss For Women), and the ‘Sister’s Day Out’ afternoon by Wanda Braybrook and Kelly Faldon (FVPLS), to name but a few.

The SNAKE Forum was an overriding success, with knowledge of sexual health and rights improving dramatically as a result of the Forum, and overall satisfaction also scoring extremely highly, with every single participant rating themselves as ‘Very satisfied’. Some even added addition scale points such as ‘10’ and ‘100’, triple circled the ‘Very Satisfied’ or added extra words such as ‘very very’, ‘more like 10!’ and ‘awesome’.

The SNAKE Forum’s incredible success was not just evidenced in the evaluations however, but in the fluidity and continuity of the sessions within the themes of each day. The safe space created at the Forum that allowed the women to comfortably share their thoughts and feelings and more easily build upon their knowledge and skills was a huge achievement, and given this was the very aim of the Forum, should be recognised as such. Moreover the sense of empowerment the women attested they were leaving with as a result of the Forum was also a great accomplishment in itself.

We also received a great deal of media coverage, including articles in the Koori Mail, the National Indigenous Times, Deadly Vibe Magazine, ABC Heywire, IPPF News, and some regional newspapers. The value of the SNAKE Forum becoming a regular event was articulated by the participants, the presenters and the organisers alike. Look out next year!

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