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Top officials take on violence against indigenous women and girls in North America






From left: Jody Wilson-Raybould; Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada; Loretta Lynch, Attorney General of the United States Department of Justice; and Arely Gómez González, the Attorney General of Mexico, at the first meeting of the North American Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women & Girls on October 14, 2016. Photo by Arely Gómez González

Top leaders from three nations gathered at the at the White House on Friday in an unprecedented effort to combat high rates of violence against indigenous women and girls.

The first-ever meeting of the new North American Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls, was notable in and of itself. But officials from the United States, Canada and Mexico underscored another reason to pay attention.

"It should not be remarkable but it is," observed Attorney General Loretta Lynch of the Department of Justice. "The leadership on this issue in all of North America is here in front of you today and we're all women."

Yet, as Lynch and her colleagues noted, the reason for their meeting was an alarming one. All three nations, with their shared borders, populations and trade networks, have failed to protect indigenous women and girls from high rates of domestic violence, sexual violence and crime.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, Lynch's counterpart from Canada, traced the problem to colonization. She said settler governments imposed new laws and systems that put First Nations women at the bottom of society's ladder.


Indianz.Com SoundCloud: North American Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women & Girls PM Session October 14, 2016

"Indigenous women in indigenous societies were stripped of their important roles as decision-makers and as providers," said Wilson-Raybould, who is the first Native woman to serve as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. They were further punished when their children were taken away from them and placed in residential schools and in non-Native homes, she asserted.

As a result, Wilson-Raybould said indigenous women are overrepresented in all parts of the justice system in her country -- as victims, witnesses and even as offenders. They are three times as likely to report being a victim of violence and their homicide rate is at least seven times as high.

'The situation is unacceptable and it is past time to end this tragedy," said Wilson-Raybould, who is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, a matrilineal society.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell shared similarly shocking statistics about violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in the United States. She said the problem was "multi-generational" and, like Wilson-Raybould, linked it to the harmful legacy of boarding schools and the placement of children in non-Native homes.

"When a woman experiences violence, of course it has an impact on the entire family and that continues, not only in the children and the adolescents and the adults, but for generations to come," Jewell said.


A recent report from the National Institute of Justice exposed the problem as worse than known. According to the data, 84.3 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes and they are more likely to be victimized by someone from another race.

"We know it's not right and we know it has to stop," said Jewell, whose Interior Department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.

Arely Gómez González, the Attorney General of Mexico, said indigenous women and girls in her country are at "double" the risk of being victimized. She called for more coordination among all three nations in order to address human trafficking across their common borders.

"Today, we are living a historical fact: the departments of justice and of criminal policy of the three countries of North America are headed by women," Gonzales said.

Going forward, the United States and Mexico on Friday signed a memorandum of understanding to do just what Gonzales urged. The BIA will work with its counterpart, the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, to share more information to prevent violence against indigenous women and girls.

"Tragically, Native American women experience violence at extremely high rates," Larry Roberts, the de facto leader of the BIA, said during the morning session of the meeting on Friday.

Additionally, officials from U.S. and Mexico will host a roundtable on cross-border tribal justice issues. The BIA and the Department of Justice are planning to hold the meeting in January, according to the White House.

Separately, the U.S. State Department is joining an effort to bring together indigenous youth from all three countries. An "exchange program" is expected to take place in the spring of 2017, the White House said.

White House Documents:
Key Deliverables for the Inaugural Meeting of the North American Working Group on Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls | North American Working Group on Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls, New Commitments & Accomplishments from the Obama Administration

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