Violence Against Indigenous Women

Amnesty International's report on sexual violence against Native American and Alaskan Native women reveals that these women are stuck in a maze of injustice.

I write weekly about bad news, setbacks and challenges faced in the struggle for reproductive justice. It hasn't been a rosy picture, that's for sure. But for this week, the subject matter almost got the better of me. I just finished reading the Amnesty International Report, Maze of Injustice: Sexual Violence Against Native American and Alaska Native Women. From the Associated Press:

American Indian women are more than twice as likely to be raped as other U.S. women, and the suspects often go free because of confusing police jurisdictions and a lack of nurses… [Amnesty International] said Tuesday that at least one in three Indian women will be raped or sexually assaulted, compared with fewer than one in five U.S. women overall.

If you know about the long history of systemic abuse and violence against Indigenous peoples in the U.S., the statistics in the report are not surprising. Violence against women is one of many manifestations of the human rights abuses that native peoples face. While it's not surprising, these stats and the stories they encapsulate are both enraging and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

An overwhelming sentiment in the report is that women don't bother reporting rapes and assaults because they know that nothing will be done for them. After experiencing a violent assault these women face an intricate maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that enable perpetrators to rape with impunity. This immunity is so widespread that in some cases it fosters a jurisdictional vacuum that encourages assaults. Before gathering evidence and prosecuting, legal procedure makes it necessary to establish the location of the crime and the identity of the perpetrator (at least 86% of these assaults are by non-native men) in order to determine which authorities have jurisdiction over the case. Running through this maze, crucial time is lost and sometimes there's no response at all from the authorities. Imagine that. No hope for justice. Here's one story from the Report:

In July 2006 an Alaska Native woman in Fairbanks reported to the police that she had been raped by a non-Native man. She gave a description of the alleged perpetrator and city police officers told her that they were going to look for him. She waited for the police to return and when they failed to do so, she went to the emergency room for treatment. A support worker told Amnesty International that the woman had bruises all over her body and was so traumatized that she was talking very quickly. She said that, although the woman was not drunk, the Sexual Assault Response Team nevertheless "treated her like a drunk Native woman first and a rape victim second". The support worker described how the woman was given some painkillers and some money to go to a non-Native shelter, which turned her away because they also assumed that she was drunk: "This is why Native women don't report. It's creating a breeding ground for sexual predators."

Interview with Alaska Native support worker (identity withheld), July 2006

If this weren't enough, if a woman reports an incident she faces the possibility that there won't be a trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) at Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities to provide forensic exams. The IHS is currently suffering a significant shortage of SANEs. This increases the likelihood that evidence will be mishandled and rape kits will be used incorrectly. This means that the women don't get a timely (if any) response from law enforcement authorities, effectively administered (if any) forensic medical examinations, and face a much lower likelihood that their cases will ever get prosecuted. So, given these obstacles to reporting, as horrific as the statistics are, it's likely that they don't capture the extent of the violence faced by indigenous women.

Freedom from violence and maintenance of bodily integrity is a critical premise of what it means to advocate for human rights, women's rights and reproductive rights. The AI report shows that indifference towards survivors and impunity for the perpetrators creates an environment where sexual violence is ignored and normalized. To understand such phenomena is matter of acknowledging a long, sordid history of racial and ethnic violence. It is a matter of recognizing the ways in which race and gender are bound up in ways that manifest themselves on the bodies of women all over the country. It is matter of expanding the scope of our advocacy and activism to really do something about it.

Amnesty International is calling on the U.S. government to take the first steps by:

  • Working in collaboration with American Indian and Alaska Native women to obtain a clear and accurate understanding about the prevalence and nature of sexual violence against Indigenous women;
  • Ensuring that American Indian and Alaska Native women have access to adequate and timely sexual assault forensic examinations without charge to the survivor;
  • Providing resources to Indian tribes for additional criminal justice and victim services to respond to crimes of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women. (One way to do this is to push for full funding of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), in which about 10% of various grants go toward Native tribes.)

For more information and ways to take action:

The Amnesty International Online Action Center

The AI Slideshow of the Report

NPR Coverage of the Report

The website of the Pretty Bird Woman House, featured in the NPR story—they are running a fundraising campaign to keep the center going.