Violence Against Native Women Gaining Global Attention

Native women in the United States are suffering horrendous rates of domestic and sexual violence—violence considered one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the United States. Recently, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, presented his report on the situation of indigenous peoples in the United States to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which recommended that Congress put an “immediate priority” on legislation such as the VAWA reform advocated by indigenous peoples and proposed by the executive to extend protections for Native women against violence.

The Indian Law Resource Center, NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women, Clan Star, Inc., National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and other Native women’s organizations have turned to the international human rights community for help. In response, independent international experts and human rights bodies have repeatedly called on the United States to take action to combat the epidemic levels of violence against Native women right here at home—levels now on a par with and even exceeding estimates of violence against women globally. With VAWA stalled by partisanship and politics and little time remaining, Congress must act immediately to bring long overdue justice to Native women in the United States.

“One of the most basic human rights recognized under international law is the right to be free of violence. While many in the United States take this right for granted, Native women do not,” said Jana Walker, senior attorney and director of the Indian Law Resource Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project. Indian women are 2½ times more likely to be assaulted and more than twice as likely to be stalked than other women in this country. Today, one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, and six in ten will be physically assaulted. Even worse, on some reservations, the murder rate for Native women is ten times the national average.

Some 88% of these types of crimes are committed by non-Indians over which tribal governments lack any criminal jurisdiction under U.S. law and, according to the Census Bureau, 77% of the population residing on Indian lands and reservations is non-Indian. “This leaves Indian nations, which have sovereignty over their territories and people, as the only governments in America without jurisdiction and the local control needed to combat such violence in their communities,” added Terri Henry, Co-Chair, National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women; Councilwoman, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; and Board member for the Indian Law Resource Center. While federal authorities have exclusive jurisdiction over most of these crimes, U.S. attorneys, often located hundreds of miles from a reservation, are declining to prosecute 67% of sexual abuse matters referred to them from Indian country.

Criminals act with impunity in Indian country and Alaska Native villages, threaten the lives of Native women daily, and perpetuate an escalating cycle of violence in Native communities. “Young women on the reservation live their lives in anticipation of being raped,” said Juana Majel Dixon, 1st Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians and Co-Chair of the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women. “They talk about ‘how will I survive my rape’ as opposed to not even thinking about it. We shouldn’t have to live our lives that way.”

Experts within both the United Nations and the Organization of American States have examined violence against Native women in the United States and issued recommendations, yet the United States has done nothing. UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, Ms. Rashida Manjoo, concluded in her report to the UN General Assembly in New York in 2011 that the United States “consider restoring . . . tribal authority to enforce tribal law over all perpetrators, both Native and non-Native, who commit acts of sexual and domestic violence within their jurisdiction.” In October 2011, after a thematic hearing, Violence Against Native Women in the United States, the OAS’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission expressed strong concern about violence against women in Honduras, Nicaragua, Columbia, and indigenous women in the United States, urging these countries to address such violence through laws, policies, and programs in collaboration with the women affected.

The United States’ position to get tough on violence against women globally and international human rights law calls out for Congress to remove the legal barriers in United States law that discriminate against Native women. “Native women should not be protected less just because they are Indian and are assaulted on an American Indian reservation or in an Alaska Native village,” said Walker. “The epidemic of violence against Native women is a human rights crisis that Indian country has long been aware of and now the world is taking notice and supporting justice for Native women in the United States,” added Henry.

Congress should too.

Help us get the attention of lawmakers who must act now. Sign our petition for a stronger VAWA.