President Barack Obama signed into law the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on March 7 surrounded by American Indian women who fought tirelessly for the passage of the bill to protect the rights of Native women throughout the United States.
Three months after the signing of the bill, the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET) announced a plan of action to help carry out the new VAWA initiatives through a work group. During USET’s Semi-Annual Board of Directors meeting, the organization adopted a resolution creating a “workgroup on violence against Native women to monitor policy, identify best practices, provide technical assistance, and provide public education and awareness to Indian country,” according to a USET press release.
Within VAWA’s legislation were provisions allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who commit violence against women and families on Indian lands. (Related story: Violence Against Women Act With Tribal Provisions Passes House; On to President Obama for Signature)
“This is an effort to preserve the legacy of our community. The backbone of that legacy is held by our earth mothers to the Mother Earth. USET wants to reinforce and build upon the work that is being done by so many to improve tribal capacity to effectively enforce the new laws and initiatives that have been given to us through the VAWA reauthorization so that we are not just building safe neighborhoods, but healthy neighborhoods,” Brian Patterson, president of USET said on why USET is dedicated to seeing the benefits of VAWA. “Once again we owe this work to our Native women, because they nurture our families and give us life in so many ways. When our mothers and daughters live in fear, this creates an unstable community and destroys our community health. That is why creating this workgroup is so important.”
The USET working group will rely on members like Terri Henry, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal councilwoman. Henry is an expert on the issues covered under VAWA who has been co-chair of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Task Force on Violence Against Native Women. The USET workgroup is a direct result of Henry’s urging for its creation. According to the release, she “informed members of the USET Board of Directors in May that (Department of Justice) is going to offer assistance for tribes in the form of grants.” The grants will be available to help tribal governments and courts build programs for code and legal policy development, prevention of sex trafficking and youth victimization.
The grants will be beneficial to Indian country in building capacity to handle domestic violence and sexual assault with respect to law enforcement, tribal courts and incarceration, Henry said.
Statistics have been grim in Indian country when it comes to domestic violence. In a February Policy Insights Brief titled Statistics on Violence Against Native Women, NCAI presented some of the numbers that VAWA aims to curb.
— American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes – at least 2 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes.
— 61 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women (3 out of 5) have been assaulted in their lifetime.
— 34 percent of Native women will be raped in their lifetime.
As USET has pointed out, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to launch VAWA initiatives.
“We have to make sure our I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. There is a lot at stake and we have to be better and exceed expectations,” Henry told USET.
Advocates like Henry and NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson-Pata are urging tribes to take advantage of the resources being made available to build their capacity to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate non-Native’s accused of domestic violence and sexual assault, which is now permitted by VAWA according to the release.
Henry added, “We want all tribes to be a part of the collective problem solving and solution finding that will create an effective system of justice to carry out this new law (VAWA). Our ultimate goal is safety for our Native women, which is an important aspect of our tribal sovereignty. With USET’s effort to develop a workgroup, that’s ensuring we meet the unique needs of our tribes which will make VAWA effective.”
Henry said advocates and tribes are currently waiting for Congressional appropriations to support Grants to Indian Tribal Government Programs. The grants are reported to be available to all tribes with a basic justice system in place – courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and law enforcement.