In what organizers hope will be but the first of many Annual Sexual Assault Awareness Conferences, scores of attendees registered for the two and a half day event at Seven Clans Casino on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.
The conference, held April 11-13, was sponsored by Equay Wiigamig (Women's Shelter) of Red Lake.
The theme of the conference was "Ganawenindizon da-gina'amaagemagak maji-doodawind bemaadizid," meaning “Protect your spirit, stand against sexual violence.” Speakers included Vednita Carter and Joy Friedman of Breaking Free, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based nonprofit organization serving women and girls who have been victims of abuse and commercial sexual exploitation (prostitution/sex trafficking), and Robin Charboneau, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation, who shared her heartbreaking and uplifting survival story of overcoming the pain caused by years of sexual abuse as a child.
The conference was free to all, and attended by social workers from several communities both on and off reservation.
The conference commenced April 11 with a welcoming prayer offered by Spiritual Elder Larry Stillday, followed by a drum song by Black Bear Crossing.
Vednita Carter, founder and executive director of Breaking Free, kicked off the keynote speeches. The mission of Breaking Free, established in October 1996 by Carter, is to help and educate women and girls who need assistance escaping the violence in their lives. "It is estimated that as many as 85 percent of sex-trafficking victims have been molested and/or sold before the age of 18," Carter said.
Carter explained the groups philosophy: "We understand sex trafficking as a vicious cycle of violence, abuse, incarceration and addiction. We understand that repeated experiences of violence undermine women and girls' capacities to avoid further victimization. Sexual exploitation distorts the lives of women and girls, destroys families and communities," she said.
Carter also discussed the organizational goals of Breaking Free:
•To expose prostitution/sex trafficking as violence against women
•To provide supportive services and education to exploited/trafficked women and girls to help them escape the cycle
•To operate within a culturally appropriate, age and gender-specific context
•To provide transitional and/or permanent housing and rental/placement assistance to our target population
•To educate the community about the effects of commercial sexual exploitation on women and girls
Joy Friedman, a survivor of violence and the women's program manager for Breaking Free, conducted the afternoon session, focusing on human trafficking. "The UN [United Nations] estimates that 27 million people are enslaved worldwide. That is more than at any other time in history. Statistics show that 80 percent of victims are female, of which, 50 percent are children. The average age of entry into commercial sex in this country is 12-14 years old," she said.
Human trafficking is the fastest growing black market crime on the planet—second only to drug dealing—and generating an estimated $32 billion dollars per year. "Females are typically sold for the purpose of sex," said Friedman. "Domestic victims report being forced to service as many as 10 men per day on average while international victims report as many as 40 per day."
And Minnesota is no exemption. The state ranked as one of the top 13 states in the nation for the highest incidence in recruitment of minors. "In 2010," says Friedman, "the online sales of minor girls being sold in Minnesota increased by 55 percent over a six month period. When asked, 89 percent of women and girls used in prostitution wanted to get out but didn’t know where to turn for help. That's why we're here," said Friedman, "to help."
Breaking Free also provided facts about the women and girls in the program:
• 85 percent are victims of rape and/or molestation before the age of 18
• 95 percent use drugs and/or alcohol to numb the pain
• 83 percent are victims of assault with a deadly weapon
• 57 percent have been kidnapped at some point
• 60-90 percent are without safe housing
• 100 percent are someone’s daughter, sister, and/or mother
Equay Wiigamig staff presented some stark statistics of sexual assault in Indian Country in a handout:
• Over 70 percent of sexual assaults are not reported.
• The rate of violent crime in Indian Country is 2.5 percent greater [than the United States as a whole].
• A National Violence Against Women survey indicated a 15.9 percent victimization rate of American Indians/Alaska Natives by and intimate partner.
• 90 percent of American Indian women in chemical dependency treatment programs have experienced some type of sexual assault/abuse.
• One in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.
• One in four girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
• One in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
• 85 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
The next day, Robin Charboneau, a member of Spirit Lake Nation of North Dakota, spoke about recovering from sexual abuse, domestic violence and chemical dependency. She told a sobering story that began with being sexually abused as a small child.
"What I will be sharing with you today is intense," began Charboneau. "I speak out about recovery. I will be touching your heart and core to help you to find who you are. I may trigger emotions deep within you. If you feel overwhelmed any time during my presentation today please feel free to take care of yourself by leaving. If you feel overwhelmed tonight still then please call the crisis line and talk with an advocate."
Read more about Charboneau's battle to recovery here.
Following Charboneau's presentation and a lunch break, Guadalupe Lopez, membership and outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition (MIWSAC) and a member of the Leech Lake Ojibwe, presented "Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota."
Lopez also serves as a volunteer sexual assault ddvocate for sexual offense services in Ramsey County and Okiciyapi in Granite Falls. Prior to her employment with MIWSAC, she worked for Women of Nations in Saint Paul, advocating on behalf of battered women.
Lopez's presentation was based on personal interviews and stories of 105 Native women in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Bemidji. "This is first-ever study of prostitution and trafficking of Native women in Minnesota to be released by the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research & Education," Lopez said.
For the remainder of the afternoon, activities centered on the rights of crime victims, and a report on the Red Lake Sex Offender Registry.
On the final day, Red Lake Women's Advocate Victoria Fineday provided hope to attendees with her presentation "Steps to Healing."
The sexual assault conference, sponsored by Equay Wiigamig, was supported by a grant awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U. S. Department of Justice.
A Red Lake press release about the conference concluded with the following quote:
"Among the Indians there have been no written laws. Customs handed down from generation to generation have been the only laws to guide them. Everyone might act different from what might be considered right did he choose to do so, but such acts would bring upon him the censure of the nation…This fear of the Nation's censure acted as a mighty band, binding all in one social, honorable compact." -George Copway (Kah-ge-go-gah-bowh), 1818-1863, Ojibwe Chief