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Rape Data for Indian Country Has Failed to Capture Complete Picture

WASHINGTON—National crime statistics already indicate that 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes, but new clarification from the Obama administration on the definition of rapes that affect women, men, and children indicate that the daunting numbers may only be telling a sliver of the story.

President Barack Obama cited the statistic at the November 2009 White House Tribal Nationals Conference, stating, “When one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national conscience; it is an affront to our shared humanity; it is something that we cannot allow to continue.”

The data, gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice, indicates that Native American women suffer from violent crime at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average.

Turns out, because these national numbers have been widely based on an old definition of rape—one that only involves physical forcible male penile penetration of a woman’s vagina—the number of rapes involving Indians may actually be much higher.

That revelation was made clear January 6 when the Obama administration announced that the federal government would also begin counting rapes toward women that were done by an object or mouth on the vagina or anus without consent, and it would begin counting rapes of children and men as well. The new data will be collected for the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The new definition is more consistent with state laws and local crime reports, administration officials said.

Obama administration officials said the new measuring methods may lead to an increase in the number of counted rapes nationwide, including those in Indian country.

“This major policy change will lead to more accurate reporting and far more comprehensive understanding of this devastating crime,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to Obama, in a press conference call. She called the old data “incomplete,” and said that “it has not captured the true impact of this crime.”

Jarrett shared that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, under the old definition, currently reports that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetimes, and 1 in 71 men. An estimated 84,767 rapes were reported in 2010 under the old definition.

Jarrett said that gathering more complete data will help the country to better deal with the problem.

“How we talk about rape and how we count it, makes a difference in how we view it,” added Lynn Rosenthal, the first ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. “If we don’t know the extent of a problem, it’s difficult to find solutions to that problem.”

Obama administration officials would not estimate how many more rapes are expected to be counted as a result of the change, but all were in agreement that the numbers would increase.

Meanwhile, even as the number of measured rapes in Indian country is expected to rise, Congress recently cut millions of dollars to programs that would aid Indian rape survivors.

Katy Jackman, a staff attorney with the National Congress of American Indians, noted that when Congress cut funding under the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) by $90 million in November, it delivered a “serious tangential impact” to rape victims by limiting the attorney general’s ability to prosecute rape in Indian country and by cutting funds to the tribal justice system, which will limits tribes’ abilities to prosecute offenders.

Jackman also noted that despite the cuts, victim services offered to Indian rape survivors under the Violence Against Women Act have stayed intact, but Congress has not reauthorized that law since 2005. Advocates will be making a major push in 2012 for this to happen.

“The only thing that will prevent violence against Indian women is local control of law enforcement and prosecution,” added Ryan Dreveskracht, a lawyer with the Indian-focused law firm Galanda Broadman. “Only local tribal officers and justice systems are capable of understanding and being accountable to victims of violence and their communities. The TLOA recognizes this by helping to provide local control of law enforcement, particularly as it relates to violence against women.

“Unfortunately, the current TLOA underfunding primarily affects these programs that are local in nature—programs that support the strengthening of local tribal justice programs and courts—while those programs that prop-up the federal control of reservation crime control and perpetuate the status quo have remained largely intact.”