– By Sophia Auld
Before Sono Leone, an indigenous woman in Queensland, turned 22 years old, she had experienced domestic violence not unlike what many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia have endured. In fact, indigenous women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence than non-Indigenous women, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. For Sono, though, experiencing abuse first-hand led her out of the darkness and into a relationship with Jesus.
Now the founder of the advocacy ministry Strong Women Talking, an organization that provides workshops and support for indigenous women, Sono realised in her 20s that she needed something “other than what I was looking to which was alcohol and the way of the world.” That something else was Jesus. Because of her vision to help others through Strong Women Talking, Sono recently received the People’s Choice award and a grant through ADM’s Annual Funding event.
Sono’s story, however, initially was shaped through generations of institutional and family abuses. Government officials removed her grandfather, a Garawa man from the Gulf of Carpentaria, from his home at age 11. Her grandmother, a Butchulla woman, was also forcibly removed from her family in Hervey Bay at the same age. They were members of the Stolen Generation, taken from their families to an Aboriginal reserve at Cherbourg, a community 260km north-west of Brisbane. They lived there the rest of their lives, and Sono’s mother was born there.
But Sono was determined not to let her history define her future. Armed with a newfound faith in Christ, she believed she could do something to help break the cycle of violence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The result is Strong Women Talking – Marigurim Mubi Yangu.
Newly registered in 2017, Strong Women Talking focuses on preventing violence while removing the stigma and shame attached to sexual abuse. By delivering culturally appropriate workshops to women and children in communities around Brisbane, Sono believes genuine change is possible.
“We participate in cultural activities that build up the connection back to our ways,” Sono says. “That includes some cleansing and commitment ceremonies, meeting with Elders who pray over them, as well as art activities like weaving and bead making that help them process their story.”
The weekly workshops run over two months during school terms. Qualified indigenous facilitators – most of whom have lived experience of abuse – deliver the programs under the banners of Educate, Equip and Empower. Participants learn about the forms of abuse, the cycle of violence, how trauma impacts them and their children, and what healthy relationships look like.
“We share Scripture during each activity as well,” Sono says. “The program is based on Psalm 139:16 – that God has preordained their days before one of them has come to pass.” She says that while the women have experienced abuse, “their story is not over yet. God has an amazing plan and destiny for them and [we’re] helping them to see that again.”
Likewise, coming into a culturally safe space helps the women feel supported. “If they're younger, they might look at me like a big sister or an auntie. If they're an older woman they might look at me like a little sister,” she says.
The idea for Strong Women Talking took shape while Sono was on a team trip visiting Phnom Penh with Destiny Rescue – an organisation dedicated to rescuing children trapped in the sex trade.
“I believe God gave me a vision of me doing workshops in my community with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and I knew it was around domestic violence,” she says. On returning to Australia, she felt called to leave her job, which was no small thing since she had worked as a public servant in community development since the age of 19. Although considering herself blessed to be the first in her family to work in government, she resigned from that work in what she felt was obedience to God’s call.
And despite the hardship she’s been through, Sono believes she has always been cared for.
“Throughout my journey God has faithfully had me in the palm of his hands before I even knew,” she says. “I see now him building me up within the community development space, even with experiences like the Annual Funding Event at ADM.”
For Sono, Strong Women Talking helps her identify the gap in servicing when it comes to prevention work around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and is passionate about seeing women’s lives transformed in God’s love through educating, equipping and empowering them.
Her ultimate hope? That the church and other Christian organizations like ADM will partner with Strong Women Walking. “I’m hopeful that other Christians can get behind this ministry, one that is totally God's vision to bring restoration for families and to bring healing to women and their children.”