Safe Women, Strong Nations

AN EPIDEMIC OF VIOLENCE

One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime, and three in five will be physically assaulted. Native women are more than twice as likely to be stalked than other women and, even worse, Native women are being murdered at a rate ten times the national average. Due to under-reporting, the actual numbers are almost certainly higher. While data on violence against Native girls is sorely lacking, a recent national survey found violence against Native girls may be disproportionately high as well.

The Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project partners with Native women’s organizations and Indian and Alaska Native nations to end violence against Native women and girls.  Our project raises awareness to gain strong federal action to end violence against Native women; provides legal advice to national Native women’s organizations and Indian nations on ways to restore tribal criminal authority; and helps Indian nations increase their capacity to prevent violence and punish offenders on their lands.

VIDEOTO THE INDIGENOUS WOMAN - UNCUT, LONG VERSION

 

Violence against Native women has reached epidemic levels in Indian country and Alaska Native villages. Today, Native women face rates of sexual violence and physical assault that are 2½ times higher than violence against any other group of women in the United States−levels now on a par with estimates of violence against women globally.

Statistics tell only part of the story, failing to account for the devastating impacts this violence has on Indian families, Native communities, and Indian nations themselves. Nevertheless, these statistics make absolutely clear that something more must be done to restore safety to Native women and to help Indian nations address the cycle of violence in Native communities.


RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND DENIAL OF EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW

It is outrageous that the vast majority of these women never see their abusers or rapists brought to justice. An unworkable, race-based criminal jurisdictional scheme created by the United States has limited the ability of Indian nations to protect Native women from violence and to provide them with meaningful remedies.  For more than 35 years, United States law has stripped Indian nations of all criminal authority over non-Indians. As a result, Indian nations are unable to prosecute non-Indians, who reportedly commit 88% of the violent crimes against Native women on tribal lands. The Census Bureau reports that non-Indians now comprise 76% of the population on tribal lands and 68% of the population in Alaska Native villages. Many Native women have married non-Indians. However, it is unacceptable that a non-Indian who chooses to marry a Native woman, live on her reservation, and commit acts of domestic violence against her, cannot be criminally prosecuted by an Indian nation and more often than not will never be prosecuted by any government.

 

 

 

Federal and state officials having authority to protect Native women and girls are failing to do so at alarming rates. By their own account, between 2005 and 2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of the Indian country matters referred to them involving sexual abuse and related matters. Even grimmer, due to the lack of law enforcement, many of these crimes in Native communities are not even investigated.

United States law creates a discriminatory system for administering justice in Native communities−−a system that allows criminals to act with impunity in Indian country, threatens the lives and violates the human rights of Native women and girls daily, and perpetuates an escalating cycle of violence in Native communities.  Women who are subjected to violence should not be treated differently and discriminated against just because they are Native and were assaulted on an Indian reservation or in an Alaska Native village!


VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS


Terri Henry testifies before the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights

All this highlights the United States’ failure not only under its own law, including the trust responsibility to Indian nations, but also its obligations under international human rights law such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps the most basic human right recognized under international law is the right to be free of violence.  

Through international advocacy, the Center and its partners not only educate, but also add world pressure on the United States regarding its obligations to end the epidemic of violence against Native women. Toward that end, the Center and its partners have raised awareness about violence against Native women in the United States within the United Nations through its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2007), Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism (2008), Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (2011), Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2012), and Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2012).

The Center and its partners also have brought regional international attention to violence against Native women within the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2008, on behalf of numerous nonprofit organizations and tribal governments, the Center and Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women submitted an amicus brief in support of Jessica Gonzales Lenahan, who filed the first human rights case involving domestic violence in any international body against the United States. The case, which involved the deliberate failure of local police to enforce a domestic violence protection order, did not arise in Indian country. However, it has major implications for Native women who rarely see their abusers brought to justice. In 2011, the Center and its partners, the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Native Women and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, participated in the first ever thematic hearing on violence against Native women in the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission has since expressed concern about violence against indigenous women in the United States, noting that such situations tend to be accompanied by impunity and urging the United States to address this violence through laws, policies, and programs.


REFORMING FEDERAL LAW TO RESTORE SAFETY TO NATIVE WOMEN

The Center collaborates with Native women’s organizations and Indian nations to change and improve United States law that unjustly restricts Indian nations from adequately investigating, prosecuting, and punishing these crimes against all perpetrators.  The Center supports efforts to strengthen Indian nations in restoring safety to Native women. Our project recognizes that protection of Native women must involve strengthening the ability of Indian nations to effectively police their lands and prosecute and punish criminal offenders. 

A center piece of our work with partner organizations has concerned the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which expired in 2011.  The Indian Law Resource Center, the National Congress for American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women, Clan Star, Inc., and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center have been working both domestically and internationally to restore safety to native women and to protect their most basic human right, the right to be free of violence.  We supported efforts to add provisions to VAWA that would restore tribal criminal  authority to address violence against Native women by non-Natives in Indian country.  In 2012, the Senate passed such a bill by a strong bipartisan vote, however, the House stripped out protections for the most vulnerable, including Native women.  Then, time simply ran out for the 112th Congress, leaving the lives of Native women threatened daily and tribes as the only governments in the United States without authority to protect women from domestic and sexual violence in their communities. 

The 113th Congress acted quickly, passing a bipartisan VAWA with tribal provisions intact.  On March 7, 2013, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013) into law, an historic step forward that reflects not only the United States’ commitment to protect Native women from domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protective orders, but also its restoration and reaffirmation of inherent tribal sovereignty to protect their citizens from violence.  Tribal participation in the new jurisdictional provisions is voluntary.  Though tribes can issue and enforce civil protection orders, under VAWA 2013 tribes generally cannot criminally prosecute non-Indian abusers until at least March 7, 2015.   However, under a pilot project, a tribe can start prosecuting non-Indians sooner if the tribe’s criminal justice system fully protects defendants’ rights under federal law; the tribe asks to participate in the pilot project; and the Department of Justice grants the request and sets a start date.


TRAINING NATIVE COMMUNITIES

Restoring tribal criminal authority will only end violence against Native women if Indian nations have the institutional capacity and readiness to exercise such jurisdiction. Many Indian nations are developing the infrastructure for tribal justice systems to provide safety to Native women and girls within their territories, including tribal police departments, codes, and courts. Many have domestic violence codes; training for tribal law enforcement, tribal courts, prosecutors, and probation officers; and various programs for domestic violence offenders.

 

Ginny Underwood discusses the
Center’s use of social media

The Safe Women, Strong Nations project contributes to these efforts by providing Indian nations and Native women’s organizations with assistance to build the capacity of Indian nations to investigate, prosecute, and punish those who commit violence against Native women and restore safety to Native women. This includes assisting Native women’s organizations and Indian nations in better understanding criminal jurisdiction in Indian country and implementing provisions in the Tribal Law and Order Act and VAWA 2013.  The Center also assists and prepares Native women’s organizations and Indian nations in using international advocacy to end violence against Native women.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

For further information about the Safe Women, Strong Nations project or to support our work, please click on our links or contact Jana L. Walker, project director, at jwalker@indianlaw.org or 406/449-2006.