In the 21st Century, no woman should live day-to-day thinking about when they will be raped or how they will survive and cope after they are but that is the reality for American Indian women, which is gaining global attention following the release of a report by James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“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.”
“A recurring issue that has come to my attention in various contexts is that of violence against indigenous women and girls,” Anaya said, in his statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September, following a month long tour of Indian country in the United States.
In his report Anaya says the U.S. Congress should make legislation protecting Native women an “immediate priority” and he recommends the United States immediately address violence against women through legislation. His report points to the fact that Native women suffer at horrendous rates of domestic and sexual violence compared to the rest of the country.
According to a press release from the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC), Indian women are 2 ½ 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 10 will be physically assaulted. Even worse, on some reservations, the murder rate for Native women is 10 times the national average. Some 88 percent 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 percent of the population residing on Indian lands and reservations is non-Indian.
Domestic and sexual violence is considered one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the United States and legislation like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – that includes major tribal court jurisdiction and protection order provisions for tribes to help curb the violence epidemic that exists on many reservations – has been stalled in Congress. Since VAWA has stalled due to partisanship and politics, tribal organizations have taken to drawing immediate attention to what many feel is an international human rights crisis as the window for passage is closing as the Congressional sessions end nears.
Groups reaching out to the international human rights community include the ILRC, NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women, Clan Star, Inc., National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and other Native women’s organizations. The efforts in seeking help, has not gone unnoticed as some 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, the ILRC release stated.
For many the political hold up is hampering a justice for Native women that is long overdue in the U.S.
“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 ILRC’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project, in the ILRC release.
“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, NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Women, Councilwoman, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Board member for the ILRC.
The staggering statistics don’t end at the high rates of abuse, but continue along the judicial side as well. Currently federal authorities have exclusive jurisdiction, something VAWA if passed would change, over most of these crimes, which are handled by U.S. attorneys. More often than not, these attorneys are located more than 100 miles from a reservation which leads to a decline in prosecution at the rate of 67 percent of the cases referred by Indian country.
Criminals tend to see reservations and Alaska Native villages as places they have free reign, where they can hide behind the current ineffectiveness of the judicial system and continue the cycle of violence in Native communities. “Congress can act now and NCAI is calling on members of the House and Senate to not let this crisis continue for one more day,” Majel-Dixon said.
The U.S. has continued to stand pat despite recommendations from experts with the U.N. and the Organization of American States to take action. Rashida Manjoo, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, issued a report to the U.N. General Assembly in 2011 that concluded that the U.S. “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 global reach and international human rights law is a strong push on Congress to act and remove the legal barriers in the U.S. that are discriminating 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,” Walker said. “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.
ILRC currently has a petition going for a stronger version of VAWA that can be signed at www.indianlaw.org.