Helping Native Women in a Global Way

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The Indian Law Resource Center is a nonprofit organization founded and directed by American Indians. Since 1978, it has provided assistance without charge to Indian nations and other indigenous peoples throughout the Americas working to protect their lands, resources, environment, and cultural heritage.

Since 2007, the Center has worked on a national strategy to reframe the issue of violence against Native women as a human rights issue. Grassroots Native women, their advocates, and Indian nations are increasingly turning to the international community to combat the epidemic levels of violence against Native women.  United States law has created a discriminatory legal system that often allows criminals to act with impunity in Indian country and Alaska Native villages, and perpetuates an escalating cycle of violence against Native women and girls.

“Women who are subjected to violence should not be protected less and discriminated against just because they are Native and were assaulted on an Indian reservation or in an Alaska Native village,” says Jana L. Walker (Cherokee/Shawnee/Delaware), Senior Attorney and Director of the Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations Project. “In fact, it was the unfair, unjust system of laws in the United States that led to the establishment of the Center and its work for indigenous peoples in the first place.”

This work highlights the United States’ failure to comply with its own law, including its trust responsibility to Indian nations, and its international human rights obligations such as those found in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Adopted by the UN in 2007 and endorsed by the United States in 2011, the Declaration offers new opportunities to improve United States law to restore safety to Native women and to strengthen Indian nations. Violence against Native women is addressed in Article 22(2), which calls on countries, “in conjunction with indigenous peoples, to ensure that indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection . . . against all forms of violence and discrimination.”

In September 2014, the UN held its first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The outcome document of the Conference contains important commitments by the 193 member countries of the UN General Assembly to address violence against indigenous women.

Indigenous peoples and organizations are now working together to build on the momentum of the World Conference.  In June, the Center joined with the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund in submitting two written statements on violence against indigenous women to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. The statements were strongly supported by WomenSpirit Coalition and seven other Native organizations and tribes: Alliance of Tribal Coalitions to End Violence; California Association of Tribal Governments; Central Council of Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska; Mending the Sacred Hoop; National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center; Strong Hearted Women’s Coalition, Inc.; and Uniting Three Fires Against Violence.

These statements recommended that (1) the UN Commission on the Status of Women designate the empowerment of indigenous women as an emerging issue for consideration at its next session in 2016; and (2) the Human Rights Council hold a panel to examine the causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women and girls, perhaps during its annual discussion on the rights of women, and request a report by the UN Secretary-General with concrete recommendations for action on violence against indigenous women.

WomenSpirit Coalition is working with the Indian Law Resource Center and its work with the United Nations. Last year, the Coalition sent two representatives to the UN World Conference on Indigenous People held in New York City.

Increasingly, Native organizations are learning how to use international human rights mechanisms as an effective ways to raise global awareness about violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in the United States.  “We are learning that, by supporting international advocacy efforts, coalitions like WomenSpirit can complement and strengthen the grassroots efforts at home by bringing top-down pressure from the international community to bear on the United States,” said Dee Koester (Lower Elwha Klallam), Executive Director of WomenSpirit Coalition.

“All this can spur dialogue, set precedents, and guide and support policy and law reform agendas to better protect indigenous women,” added Walker.

The Indian Law Resource Center and WomenSpirit Coalition urge all those wanting to end violence against Native women to support this work at the United Nations:

  • Get informed about international advocacy efforts to combat violence against indigenous women. Materials are available on the Center’s website and current information is also accessible through the Center’s Facebook page.  Share information with your fellow advocates and tribal leaders and urge them to get involved.
  • Tribes, Indian organizations, and coalitions can often directly join written and oral statements and help plan collective efforts to publicize this work.
  • Ask your tribal leaders to participate in key UN meetings, such as those of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Commission on the Status of Women, both of which meet annually in New York City.