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Youth Key to Stopping Cycle of Violence Against Women

Specifically, the summit aimed to address the legal tenets of the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act.

As a child, Jovanna Pasena felt unsafe.

While growing up in New Mexico’s small San Felipe Pueblo, Pasena endured her father’s erratic and often violent behavior. She remembers her mother being in physical danger and her brother cowering in fear. “My father drank a lot,” said Pasena, now 18. “When he did that, he changed into another person.”

As a child, Pasena felt powerless to stop the violence or speak up for her mother. As a child, she had no voice, she said. “I always told myself I wanted to help my mother because she was treated badly,” Pasena said. “But I couldn’t do anything.”

Pasena found her voice this month during the second annual New Mexico Tribal Leaders Summit hosted by the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. Organized in 1996 to help stop violence and advocate for social change in Native communities, the coalition invited leaders from 20 pueblos and the Navajo, Jicarilla Apache and Mescalero Apache Nations to engage in dialogue about sexual assault and violence against women.

Pasena, one of five Native youths to participate in a panel discussion at the summit, finally spoke up about the violence in her own home. She told an audience of tribal leaders, social workers, prosecutors and judges about her father’s drinking and abusive behavior – and what finally convinced him to seek help. “He doesn’t drink anymore because he went to programs,” Pasena said. “He changed for his kids because he saw that we were afraid of him.”

Pasena is not alone, said Deanna OtherBull, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. The coalition hosted the summit to raise awareness of violence against women and children, and to discuss challenges regarding legal, tribal and community responses.

Specifically, the summit aimed to address the legal tenets of the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act – both of which give tribes more authority to prosecute offenders. Nationwide, forty-six percent of Native women have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking and three out of five have been assaulted by their spouse or intimate partner, but only three tribes have implemented the new provisions.

“The big challenge is that it costs a lot of money to implement,” OtherBull said. “Some tribes or pueblos are ready to hire law-trained judges and public defenders. Other tribes still don’t have formal domestic violence or sexual assault codes on the books.”

As a resource, training and advocacy center, the coalition tries to fill in the gaps, OtherBull said. This year’s summit focused on Native youth as the next generation of tribal leaders. Young people were hand-picked to attend the summit and share their experiences with violence.

“The mission of the coalition is to stop violence against women and children,” OtherBull said. “I believe that means starting with the youth. They have the power to either perpetuate the cycle of violence or stop it.”

Fifteen-year-old Mia Speckled Rock, of the Santa Clara Pueblo, fielded a question about what she saw as the solution. A member of Tewa Women United, an intertribal women’s advocacy group in northern New Mexico, Speckled Rock spoke about preventing violence before it starts.

“Instead of taking a reactive approach and trying to help heal something that has already happened, we should take a preventative approach and create programs so it doesn’t happen in the first place,” she said.

Speckled Rock, who has witnessed a range of violence from domestic issues to school bullying, is considering a career in violence prevention. She advocates for community programs that equip individuals with the tools to make healthy choices.

Pasena wants to see more programs for women who, like her mother, feel alone in their struggles. “Women need to see they have people behind them,” she said. “They do have a voice and they don’t have to be afraid to use it.”

The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women is hosting its fourth annual youth summit July 28-31. Geared directly to the next generation of tribal leaders, the summit is open to any Native youths age 12-18 whose lives have been touched by violence. Register for the conference here.