Australian Prime Minister John Howard has held talks with aboriginal leaders on ways to deal with violence against women and children in native communities. Mr. Howard says existing policies are not addressing worsening social problems.

Violence against indigenous women and children has reached 'crisis proportions,' according to many community elders. In 1999, a report found that aboriginal settlements in the northern state of Queensland were "imploding" under the weight of domestic assaults. Four years later, the situation across Australia, has shown no real sign of improving.

Barbara is one of thousands of women whose lives have been devastated by domestic violence. She says she endured decades of abuse from her husband.

"Through a period of 33 years, I was bashed, tortured, and I think there was only about, like, three times that he was in prison for what he done" she said. "And the only time that I've had peace, I'm sorry to say, is when he was deceased."

The causes of such violence are varied. Experts blame endemic poverty, alcohol abuse and a lack of education and opportunity within indigenous communities.

Whatever the reasons, the abuse is often horrific.

"He stabbed me, he bashed me once with a TV leg for four-and-a-half hours," she said. "He stuck me in the eye with a steel bar, he bashed me in the head with a hammer, in the elbow. He done a lot of violent things that were unexplainable."

It is almost impossible to establish an accurate picture of domestic violence and child abuse across aboriginal Australia. Many crimes go unreported. There is a feeling the authorities won't take allegations seriously.

Dixie Gordon from the Mudgin-Gal Women's Advice Center in Sydney says victims often don't trust the police, and won't subject their abusers to what they see as the white man's law.

"The women in the aboriginal community are really the leaders," she said. "We're the driving force saying we want change, we don't want violence, we don't want sexual assault happening to us. We hold our families together, you know. Women have not reported their men, their aboriginal brothers, their men, to police out of protection for them."

Aborigines are disadvantaged at almost every turn. Black Australians are more likely to be unemployed, ill or in jail than anyone else. Their life expectancy is 20 years below that of non-indigenous people.

Coordinator of the Mudgin-Gal center, Bronwyn Penrith, believes the violence that plagues many communities is a legacy of the invasion of European settlers more than 200 years ago.

"My own theory is that, because we were colonized in quite a violent way, so many of the things that black fellas do now is just emulating the master," she explained. "You know, because in the past we come from a tremendously violent settlement, and women being chained up and sexual abuse. I really feel that this has just gone unchecked for so long now, we're just emulating what they've done to us."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard is calling for a new approach to tackle what he calls an "appalling situation" of worsening social problems.

The Northern Territory's assistant indigenous affairs minister, John Ah Kit, says he will tell Mr. Howard, if the situation is to get better, then there will have to be progress on broader issues, such as poverty, land rights and greater self-determination for native Australians.

"I'm looking forward to making sure that he [Mr. Howard] understands that domestic violence is only a small part," he said. "It's important, but it is disturbing, the rate that these things are happening at. But there is a bigger picture, and we need to look at the causes of domestic violence."

Prime Minister Howard will see for himself the problems that confront indigenous Australians next week. He has accepted an invitation to visit remote communities on Cape York in far north Queensland next week, a trip that will confirm the government's new greater involvement in aboriginal affairs.