USA: Landmark legislation addresses sexual violence against native women

Publication Date: 
July 23, 2010
Amnesty International
Amnesty International

Amnesty International has welcomed groundbreaking legislation in the USA, which addresses the disturbing rates of acts of sexual violence committed with impunity against American Indian and Alaska Native women.

The Tribal Law and Order Act, which was passed by the US House of Representatives on Wednesday, aims to address public safety issues in Indian territories.

The act would enhance the criminal justice system by improving coordination and communication between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, Amnesty International said.

"This historic, bi-partisan legislation addresses long-overlooked human rights abuses in Indian Country. It is an important effort to tackle major challenges that allow crimes against Native American and Alaska Native peoples to flourish," said Larry Cox, executive director for Amnesty International USA.

"If properly implemented, it will open the door for the US government to address the erosion of tribal authority. In time it will decrease the high levels of rape and finally provide Native women with effective recourse if they are sexually assaulted. In short, this legislation stands to curtail the impunity that allows rapists to prey on Native women like vultures."

Amnesty International USA addressed the issue in its 2007 report, Maze of Injustice: the Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.

The report exposed the disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence that Native American and Alaska Native women suffer - 2.5 times higher than for non-native women in the United States.

The complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions often allows perpetrators, 86 percent of them non-Native men, to rape with impunity.

To navigate this maze, authorities need to establish whether the crime took place on tribal lands and whether the perpetrator was Native or non-Native to determine which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction, during which critical time is lost. This leads to inadequate investigations or a failure to respond.

"It is encouraging to see Congress begin to address some of the complicated jurisdictional issues that arise in Indian country,"said Sarah Deer, Assistant Professor at William Mitchell College of Law and a consultant for Amnesty International USA's Maze of Injustice report.

"The erosion of tribal authority means that Native perpetrators tried in tribal court can receive only one year per offense, while non-Native perpetrators cannot be prosecuted at all. The legislation provides beginning steps to empower tribal governments to take more direct action in cases of violent crime.

"When victims know that their perpetrators will be held accountable for their behaviour, they will be more likely to report crimes. Empowering tribal law enforcement personnel to protect their communities is the key."

The lack of trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) at Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities to provide forensic exams and gather essential evidence is also a factor that leads to a failure to prosecute. The report raised concerns about the lack of prosecutions and the need for accurate information about prosecution rates.

"Currently there are no standardized sexual assault protocols within the Indian Health Service, meaning that victims of sexually violent crimes may not be given rape kits that obtain critical evidence to prosecute perpetrators," said Charon Asetoyer, chair of Amnesty International USA's Native Advisory Council.