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VAWA Must Pass to Protect All Women, Regardless of Race

I am a Dakota and Lakota Sioux Native American woman who was born and raised on the reservation. As a girl I was raped; yet I overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to become an attorney and later, a tribal judge. For all of these reasons, I am acutely aware of the severity and urgency surrounding the problem of violence against Native American women- as well as how much of a difference the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) can make. Native provisions in VAWA insure that women in the United States are better protected from violence regardless of race or ethnicity. To deny any woman equal protection and access to justice discriminates against all American women.

Lest we forget, only a year ago, minions of the Republican party launched a series of heinous attacks against American women’s’ reproductive rights. Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization whose health centers make preventative health education and breast exams available to women of all ages, races, and incomes, was defunded by the Susan G. Komen Foundation- a decision likely made due to political pressure from the Right. Republicans in Virginia introduced a bill that sanctioned the rape of its female constituents. Had it passed, the bill would have required women who were considering having an abortion to have an ultrasound probe inserted into their vaginas, even without their consent.

Contraception coverage by health insurers also came under fire in the U.S. Congress, as an all-male panel, overseen by a Republican committee chairman, refused to allow a female witness to testify. The witness lost an ovary due to ovarian cysts that could have been prevented by taking birth control pills. She was affiliated with the Catholic Church, and they prohibit the use of contraception.

This War on Women awakened a sleeping giant. Ladies were paying attention, as the 2012 election proved. Romney and his “binders full of women” was sent packing, and the 113th Congress now has 20 female Senators, the most it’s had in all of U.S. history. Yet apparently, the knuckle-dragging, misogynistic wing of the Republican party still hasn’t learned its lesson. By blocking the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), they are once again revealing how willfully ignorant they are when it comes to women’s issues, and that they plain just don’t care enough about us to make a concerted effort to protect us from violence, or see that we are afforded the same avenues of justice that men receive.

First made law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act aids in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes committed against women. 2012 was the first time VAWA hasn’t been reauthorized. What could be so controversial about protecting women from violent predators?

The continuation of VAWA is desperately needed. According to the National Task Force to End Domestic Violence, a quarter of all American women are victims of domestic violence, and three women are murdered by their partners every single day in this country. At least one in six women has been the victim of a sexual assault.

As abysmal as these statistics are, the rates of violence against Native American women are even higher. One in three Native women is a sexual violence survivor, and the murder rate for Native American women is a staggering ten times the national average. Ironically, it is provisions within VAWA meant to help protect Native American women, as well as LGBT and immigrant women, that Republicans take issue with.

Why is there so much violence against Native American occurring? There’s a complex history behind it as well as a number of socioeconomic factors- but provisions for Native women in VAWA, as proposed, could produce measurable results in stemming this violence because it aims directly at one of the main causes.

Native American women living on Indian reservations are highly susceptible to violence by non-Native men because tribal courts lack jurisdiction over them, even when these crimes are committed on tribal lands. Today, federal and state law enforcement has jurisdiction over domestic violence committed on the reservation, but they often lack the means or incentive to pursue such cases, and state’s attorneys repeatedly decline to take legal action. This means that under our current system, non-Native men who prey upon Native women are pretty much immune from prosecution.

Provisions in VAWA will give tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Natives who live on tribal lands, all the while affording them the same due process they are given in federal courts. Such action will effectively end an open season on Native American women and girls who are being brutalized, raped and killed, without receiving adequate protections or equal justice for the horrific crimes being committed against them. Do not be fooled by partisan politicians’ race-baiting. Provisions for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act are meant to protect women, not seed exclusive dominion to tribes.

No woman deserves to be beaten, raped, or killed, regardless of her race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. If Congress fails to reauthorize VAWA, they are complicit to violence committed against all women. Such acquiescence endorses a rape culture. Our own government is trivializing sexual assault and engaging in victim blaming. Women are not second class citizens. Women are the majority. This is country belongs to us all; men and women, of all colors and creeds.

The Senate passed VAWA with provisions on Monday, but a battle for its reauthorization is anticipated to take place in the House of Representatives. We can stop this human rights crisis now. Contact your state representative and let them know where you stand. Tell them to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and that we’ll remember their vote on election day.

Ruth Hopkins is a Native American writer, blogger, Judge, administrator, and columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is an author, blogger, biologist, activist, judge, columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, and founding writer with Lastrealindians.com.

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