Failing Indigenous Women: The Right to Justice and Freedom from Sexual Violence in the United States


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“I don’t know what to do anymore.  I don’t get any answers.” –Relative of a young woman who was raped nine months earlier. © Amnesty International. Photographer: Adam Nadal

In the United States, Sexual violence against women from Indian nations is at epidemic proportions and survivors are frequently denied justice. Native American and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than non-Native women. 1 in 3 Native women will be raped during her lifetime. What’s more, many Native survivors of rape and sexual assault will then struggle to receive basic post-rape care. Amnesty International’s report, Maze of Injustice: The Failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA confirmed what Native women and advocates had long known: Native women are denied their basic rights to freedom from violence and to justice.

Sexual violence against Native women is the result of a number of factors and continues a history of widespread human rights abuses against Indigenous Peoples in the U.S.  Historically, Indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization. The attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples that underpin such human rights abuses continue to be present in in the U.S. today. They contribute to the present high rates of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and help to shield their attackers from justice; they contribute to the lack of urgency throughout the U.S. government and society to address such violence and ensure survivors have the care they need.

Native women face significant barriers to securing justice following sexual violence due to insufficient police responses, inadequate health and forensic services, and a lack of prosecutions.

In 2011 the Indian Health Service (IHS), the federal agency responsible for providing health care to Indigenous communities, implemented sexual assault protocols that include guidelines for post-rape care. However, Native health activists report that these protocols are unevenly, if ever, fully implemented.

10 years after the initial launch of the Maze of Injustice report, far too few gains have been made, and the United States continues to fail to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish sexual violence against Native women. As a result Indigenous survivors of sexual violence face prejudice and discrimination at all stages of federal and state investigation and prosecution. Rape kits, often the only route to justice for survivors, are frequently not administered, left unprocessed, or are not heard as evidence in court due to institutional failures within the IHS.

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J was told by the police department that her sexual assault forensic examination had been destroyed.  Because of the lack of evidence available, the District Attorney advised her to drop the complaint after the preliminary hearing. © Amnesty International. Photographer: Adam Nadal

According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Articles 21(2) and 22, States must pay special attention to the rights of Indigenous women to guarantee their full protection against all forms of violence, an area in which the U.S. government is grossly failing. Article 23(1) states that Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and administer their own health programs, and Article 24(2) states that Indigenous peoples have a right to the highest standard of healthcare possible. Unfortunately, U.S. federal jurisdiction over reservations means that Indigenous peoples have little control over their health resources. The IHS decides which services to provide to Native communities, and its current failure to implement comprehensive sexual assault protocols indicates a lack of concern for the rights of Native women.

The U.S. was among four U.N. member-states to shamefully vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) when it was adopted in 2007.  Fortunately, in 2011, the government reversed this position and announced its support for the Declaration.

And yet, the United States has failed Native women across the country through its failure to build on that commitment and protect, respect, and fulfill their most basic rights.

Sexual violence is a human rights issue, and Native women deserve the same resources and routes to justice as non-Native women.


Profile: Charon Asetoyer

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© Amnesty International. Photographer: Adam Nadal

Charon Asetoyer (Comanche Nation) is the Executive Director and founder of the Native American Community Board and the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, located on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, South Dakota. Her activism focuses at the intersection of reproductive justice, environmental justice, and Native American rights.

Charon has been an undeniable force in improving her community’s health and wellbeing, providing resources like health information, a domestic violence shelter, and transitional housing. Her work to make change in her community and across Native communities has helped change national law and policy to better serve Native women, including ensuring non-Native men can be prosecuted by tribal courts for assaults on Native women and ensuring access to emergency contraceptives for Native women. As Charon related to Amnesty, changes must be made at every level: “Government accountability from the highest level to the community level needs to enforce one standard of law for all women including Native American women. Sexual violence is no exception, our dignity must be guaranteed and protected by the law.”

At every level of government, Native women’s activists like Charon face enormous challenges.  Even agencies like Indian Health Service, ostensibly meant to ensure the health and rights of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, suffer from deep-rooted colonial legacies: “It should never be as difficult as it has to get policy developed and implemented that improves the health and wellbeing of Native women and children. As long as there is racism within, we will have to fight for our right to equality within all governmental agencies, including IHS.”

Charon’s work has shown the difference that Native activists can and have made throughout their communities and across the nation.



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