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International Women's Day: Sexual Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls

A recent article posted by UN-DESA states few causes promoted by the United Nations have generated more intense and widespread support than the campaign to promote and protect the rights of women. The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, was the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right.

Over the years, United Nations action for the advancement of women has taken four clear directions: promotion of legal measures; mobilization of public opinion and international action; training and research, including the compilation of gender desegregated statistics; and direct assistance to disadvantaged groups. Today, a central organizing principle of the work of the United Nations is that no enduring solution to society’s most threatening social, economic and political problems can be found without the full participation, and the full empowerment of the world’s women, including indigenous women and girls.

Of all the world’s women, Indigenous women and girls are exposed to diverse forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence greater than any other ethnic group in the country. One in three indigenous women and girls will be raped in their lifetime. This pressing reality, was detailed in a concept note by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, laid the foundation for the three-day international expert group meeting on “Combating violence against indigenous women and girls: article 22 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” sets an important standard in the treatment of Indigenous rights. It was the first meeting ever addressing sexual violence against indigenous women and girls.

The history of violence has been long. Many ethnographic accounts from the seventeen and eighteenth centuries reveal that Native American social structures were matriarchal: children belonged to the mother’s clan, women spoke at council meetings and women had the right to vote. Indian societies empowered women and revered them for their life giving force.

With the coming of Europeans, brutalization by rape was used as a tool of conquest. The rape of Indigenous women often converged with acts of war on Indian nations. At the cessation of war, Indigenous women remained victims of sexual violence, including during the Long Walk and the Trail of Tears. Four centuries later, not much has changed. According to Amnesty International's report, Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA, states eighty-six percent of sexual assaults against indigenous women and girls are committed by non-Indian men. This does not excuse acts of sexual violence committed by our Indigenous men. The breakdown of traditional culture includes the changing roles of men in Indian communities. Unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, research which concludes men of color are mentally and morally deficient — prejudice, discrimination, and racism resulting in exclusion, poverty, institutionalization, drugs and alcoholism, in all its manifestations are obviously the root causes.

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The U.S. has a legal obligation to protect tribes’ assets and provide needed services to Indian people. Yet, violence against Indian women still occurs “as a gauntlet in the lives of Indian women: at one end verbal abuse and at the other murder.” The Department of Justice reports that sexual violence among Indian women is the most brutal. Most Indian women do not report such crimes because of the belief that nothing will be done, but not reporting the crime is creating a breeding ground for sexual predators. Consider how many of these Indigenous women and girls end-up pregnant by non-Indian men. The result is a “mixed race” child; reducing Indian blood by rape. These children and their offspring will become victims of what activist Suzan Harjo calls “Vampire Policies,” blood laws imposed by the BIA, as a means of extinguishing Indian existence, in this case, through sexual violence.

According to Amnesty International, when sexual assaults are reported, federal law enforcement agents often fail to bring non-Indian offenders to justice. Federal law prohibits Native tribes from prosecuting non-Natives. Determining which justice system (federal, state, or tribal) has jurisdiction over the crime is a complex maze and results in significant delays in the investigation. Moreover, when a case of sexual violence by a non-Indian is finally brought to federal or state prosecutors, the case may never be brought to trial due to lack of time and financial resources.

The under-financing of police staff and tribal courts leads to gaps in law enforcement. Often crime reports are neither complete nor accurate. Indian Health Service facilities are also critically under-funded. Due to the lack of trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) at Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities who can provide forensic exams and gather essential evidence, victims often fail to receive adequate and timely exams or, worse, receive no exams at all. Without forensic evidence, victims may never see their case prosecuted.

Stereotypes don’t help. Images such as the Land O’ Lakes maiden — a kneeling, subservient, butter-offering “squaw” — is offensive to the historically aware, and denies the heritage of active American Indian womanhood. The word “squaw” appears in many Algonquian dialects. Over time, however, it has taken on negative connotations and become a derogatory, sexualized term meaning vagina.

The UN-DESA indicates UN meetings will continue with members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, participants from the UN system, Member States, indigenous peoples and other organizations will analyze the human rights enshrined within international standards and policies and will indicate how these respond to the challenge of advancing the rights of indigenous women and girls. The results of the meeting will be reported to the Permanent Forum at its eleventh session in May, to the General Assembly at its sixty-seventh session starting in September and to the Commission on the Status of Women at its fifty-sixth session beginning on 27 February. With this effort, indigenous women might have something to celebrate for International Women’s Day after all.

Julianne Jennings, E. Pequot-Nottoway, is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University.