Aboriginal women’s health camp

‘Healthy Kungkas’: Aboriginal women’s health camp empowers self-screening

Date published

07 Jul 2024

Promoting early detection of cancer was at the heart of RFDS SA/NT’s inaugural Aboriginal women’s health and wellbeing camp held in May.

Across three days, 12 local Aboriginal women welcomed the RFDS Primary Health Care team on Country in Oodnadatta, Far North SA to exchange cultural and clinical knowledge, yarning about what it means to be healthy kungkas (women) and lead healthy and happy lives.

“The ladies took us on an adventure in their backyard while we facilitated health education and activities,” RFDS SA/NT Aboriginal Health Practitioner Kristen Besant said.

“Our main goal was to promote preventative health measures, specifically finding ways to encourage the women to screen for bowel, breast and cervical cancer.

“As well as us yarning about keeping the women in our mob healthy, the ladies taught us traditional cooking, painting and weaving.

“Being welcomed onto somebody else’s Country, sharing meals and having such open conversations about women’s health was very special.”

Oodnadatta women's heath and wellbeing camp
Photo: RFDS SA/NT Aboriginal Health Practitioner with the group in Ooodnadatta.

The motivator behind hosting the camp was to create a safe space to break down ‘shame’, a deeply embedded cultural construct in Aboriginal communities.

“When it comes to health and wellbeing, one of the biggest barriers for these women is shame and not having someone they’re comfortable enough to talk to about their concerns,” Kristen said.

“By educating on Country and making them feel comfortable in their own space, we’re showing there’s no shame and that they can screen in the comfort of their home on their own.

“Being able to self-screen on their own Country is so important, as it takes away fears of embarrassment and discomfort.

“The women are unlikely to travel to Port Augusta or Adelaide to get checked by a doctor, so it also removes the physical barrier of having to drive hours to a health service."

Oodnadatta women's heath and wellbeing camp
Photo: During the camp, information sessions were run about bowel, breast and cervical cancer screenings.

RFDS SA/NT Chronic Disease Nurse Tessa Bennett also attended the camp, alongside Preventive Health SA Senior Project Officer Sharon Clarke and Narrative Therapist Lisa Besant, who engaged with the women through drawing and open communication to explore their ‘why’ in embodying better health.

“We specifically focussed on bowel screenings, cervical screenings and breast checks, because they’re the three main screenings to help catch cancer early,” Tessa said.

“In some communities, I’ve tried for years to encourage bowel screenings. But, once you’re sitting down in the dirt, ripping skin off a roo tail and cooking it over the fire together, you start to build trust.

"We found when we were out on Country, the women started feeling comfortable to ask proactive questions about the screenings – asking how they can do it again and how regularly they should get checked.

“We’ve made that bridge now. And because we know each other and have now built relationships and rapport, they know it’s a safe space to come and talk to us again.”

Oodnadatta women's heath and wellbeing camp
Photo: Tessa Bennett and Kristen Besant.

Of the 12 women who attended the camp, the RFDS team collected six bowel screening tests and is hopeful to collect more through regular fly-in clinics and follow-up camps.

The team has also organised for the group of women to travel together to Coober Pedy, the nearest health clinic, to get a mammogram.

“Chronic disease is one of the main factors behind the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians. Early detection is essential to closing the gap,” Tessa said.

“What we’re doing is spreading the word to remote communities – if they want preventative health support, we can facilitate that in their own home, or get them places and help with transport.”

At the end of the camp, the participating women were gifted self-care products, kindly donated by local SA businesses.

The camp was funded by a grant from Preventive Health SA and further supported by aged care provider Aboriginal Community Services through their community bus transport.

Oodnadatta women's heath and wellbeing camp
Photo: The camp had everything, from health information sessions to cooking damper, roo tail and painting.