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Sexual Violence Against Indigenous Women Discussed at United Nations

NEW YORK – In Mexico, Ines Fernandez Ortega, a 27-year- old woman, was preparing food in her kitchen when a group of soldiers entered her house and raped her. A local police investigation ground to a halt when military authorities claimed jurisdiction over the case.

In Canada, Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year-old Cree student from northern Manitoba, was abducted by four white men, sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. A provincial inquiry later – much later – criticized the sloppy and racially biased police investigation that took 15 years to bring one of the men to justice.

In Guatemala, Maria Isabel, a 15-year-old girl, was kidnapped and later found murdered. She had been raped, feet and hands bound with barbed wire, stabbed, strangled and stuffed into a bag. She was one of 1,188 women killed between 2001 and 2004, according to an Amnesty International report.

In America, an American Indian woman was raped, beaten and thrown from a bridge by two white men. Miraculously, the woman survived and pressed charges against her attackers but, when the case first went to trial, jurors couldn’t agree on a verdict. When asked why, one juror said, “She was just another drunk Indian.”

These examples, documented in studies by AI, are the tip of the iceberg of a worldwide scourge of sexual violence against indigenous women. A group of indigenous women discussed the issues at a panel called “Violence Against Indigenous Women” at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues May 14, the opening day of the forum’s sixth session.

“This most common human right abuse affects between 20 and 50 percent of all women of most countries for all culture and classes and, even though we’ve achieved much in the last two decades, this pernicious problem continues amongst us and even shows evidence of increasing in some societies,” said Marijke Velzeboer-Salcedo, the regional director for the Americas of United Nations Development Fund for Women and moderator of the panel.

A major report called “Indigenous Women Stand Against Violence” was recently published. It was a companion report to the U.N.’s secretary general’s study on violence against women prepared by the International Indigenous Women’s Forum, which is known by its Spanish acronym FIMI (Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indigenas). The full report and its recommendations, and strategies for eradicating violence against indigenous women, are available here.

Michael Bochenek, AI’s director of international policy, said AI has gained prominence since its 2004 violence against women campaign which calls for dismantling barriers to access justice, providing adequate health services to women and exposing the failure of states to act with due diligence in cases of violence against women.

Mililani Trask from the Indigenous World Association cited a recent report by the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights that talks about a trend by the dominant culture to justify certain acts of violence against women as cultural traditions and practices that are to be protected.

“We have seen this more and more developing over the last several years; deliberate effort on the part of the Bush administration and certain other states that are standing with the Bush administration as allies to achieve what the special rapporteur is calling ‘the orientalizing of violence against women,’” Trask said.

This is where sexual violence and racism interact, Trask continued.

“By focusing the issue on cultural traditions, the developed Western countries can both demonize certain countries and free themselves from addressing the expanding violence against women,” Trask added.

Beverly Jacobs, a Mohawk woman from Six Nations Grand River territory and the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said the well-being of communities depends on the well-being of women.

“Where I come from is a matriarchal, matrilineal society where the women in our communities are the backbone of our communities and when we have healthy women we have healthy nations and healthy communities. I think it’s a very critical situation that we’re in right now. Women in our societies are saying, ‘That’s enough, that’s enough, that’s it and what are we going to do about it?’” Jacobs said.

The groups began lobbying four years ago to address the issues of racialized sexual violence after a number of indigenous women were brutally murdered and mutilated.

“All of the stereotypes exist out there, saying that this is part of our culture and our tradition. I can tell you it’s not part of my culture and my tradition. Where I come from there is no word for sexual violence, there is no word for sexual assault, so it has to be a created word to understand what it is. It’s something we need to think about and know this is occurring across the world,” Jacobs added.