Participants in a vigil for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls take part in a prayer in front of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Hearing addresses high rates of violence against Native women

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will be taking a closer look at violence against Native women at a hearing on Friday.

Representatives of the Indian Law Resource Center, the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center are testifying at the proceeding, which takes place in Boulder, Colorado. They will be drawing attention to the struggles facing American Indian and Alaska Native women, from threats against their safety to the large numbers who go missing and murdered.

“It is unacceptable that today indigenous women continue to face the highest rates of sexual and physical violence of any group in the United States,” said Jana L. Walker, director of the Safe Women, Strong Nations project at the Indian Law Resource Center. “Indigenous women have the same human rights as others to enjoy the full protection and guarantees against violence and discrimination.”

The hearing comes as the U.S. Congress has failed to update the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The 2013 version of the law included landmark provisions that recognize the "inherent" authority of tribes to prosecute non-Indians who abuse their domestic partners.

The law, however, fails to protect Native women from all crimes. Sexual assault by a stranger, for example, is not covered.

But efforts to address the loophole have not gone anywhere on Capitol Hill despite data confirming disparities. Native women and their advocates are backing a Democratic version of VAWA that includes additional tribal jurisdiction provisions, as well as language to address missing and murdered Native women and girls, but H.R.6545 has not garnered support from anyone in the Republican Party, which controls both chambers of Congress.

Some Republicans are instead pushing an alternative version that advocates say does not offer them the protections they need on tribal homelands.

“Perhaps the most dangerous barriers in U.S. law today are the jurisdictional restrictions in VAWA 2013 that deny Alaska Natives the full benefit of the law and treat Alaska Native women differently than other women,” said Tamra (Tami) Truett Jerue, the director of the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center. “We cannot forget that this is at a time when the levels of violence against Alaska Native women are among the very highest in the United States.”

Rather than take up substantive changes to VAWA, Congress has merely enacted a temporary extension as part of H.R.6157, an unrelated federal funding bill that was signed into law last week. The extension expires on December 7.

"Reauthorization of VAWA should be a sure thing. But it’s not," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, told tribal leaders at an event in Washington, D.C., last month. "And so Congress needs to hear from you on this most critical issue."

Friday's hearing, which is open to the public, is titled "Reports of Killings, Disappearances, and Multiple Forms of Discrimination against Indigenous Communities and Indigenous Women in Alaska." The United States has been invited to send a representative.

The proceeding takes place on the final day of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights session in Boulder. Earlier this week, human rights experts heard about forced evictions of Maya people in Guatemala, the rights of indigenous children in Colombia and the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on lands throughout the Americas.

The Inter-American Commission is an autonomous body of the Organization of American States. The United States is a member of the organization.

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