After A Year of Fighting, Congress Passes VAWA--and Protects Native Women

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Today history has been made in the United States and Indian Country. The Violence Against Women Act has finally been reauthorized by both the Senate and the House of Representatives with full tribal provisions. Native American women now have a first line of defense to protect them against sexual and domestic violence. Wilson Pipestem of the Indian Law Resource Center called this, “The single most important piece of Indian law since treaty days.”

A year ago my childhood friend and I discussed how we could help with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and how we could generate more awareness about violence against Native women. So, we launched the Save Wiyabi Project. With the help of a team of artists, graphic designers, lawyers, and activists, we used multiple image series' to convey statistics, stories, and action alerts. We’ve also been able to provide the breakdown of legislation in creative and simple ways so the average person can understand their rights and what’s being debated in their name. Scholars and policy makers have been working for years to get the tribal provisions in VAWA passed at a federal level.

At the signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010, President Obama called violence on tribal lands "an affront to our shared humanity." This piece of legislation was considered a victory, but it wasn’t sufficient enough to address the jurisdictional gap that would allow tribal authorities to prosecute non-Native abusers on Indian land. So together many in Indian Country rose to the challenge and fought for the rights of Native women.

Image: lindsey Gee via Flickr

These laws and protections are necessary because the realities of reservation violence are horrifying. Violence against Native American women has largely been classified as a symptom of colonization, and proof that genocide against Native people has never stopped. The proof of this is in the numbers: One out of three Native American women will be raped in their lifetime, 3 out of 4 will be physically assaulted, and our murder rate is ten times the national average. More than 80 percent of the perpetrators are non-Native and under former federal law were allowed to inflict this violence with impunity.

Native American women suffer from the highest rates of violence in the United States, and arguably the world. The United Nations, among other organizations, has labeled the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa as the "rape capital of the world." It has subsequently been called, "the worst place on earth to be a woman." In 2012 I worked with Women Under Siege, and after comparing numbers it turns out that statistics of violence against Native American women rival anything happening in the D.R.C. The United States has a superiority complex when it comes to touting human rights and treatment of women, yet this country allows these levels of violence to happen, and nearly refused to pass the Violence Against Women Act.

The tribal provisions will not be the single cure as to what Amnesty International has called a human rights crisis, but this puts us at an important starting place. Society needs to listen to Native people and know that our women are not disposable. Our women are powerful and deserve to live their lives free of fear and violence. Together we can shift culture and ensure safety and respect for our country’s most overlooked population.

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