Inside Story Americas

Can laws protect Native American women?

We examine why the Violence Against Women Act is crucial for indigenous women in the US.
Last Modified: 01 Mar 2013 16:13

After months of debate and political infighting, the US Congress has reauthorised the Violence Against Women Act.

It is an act that sought to strengthen the US justice system in dealing with violence and sexual assault against women.  It was first passed in 1994 and renewed in 2000 and 2005.

"They are victimised because they are available to be victimised and because the predators know that no-one is going to come to the rescue of the women."

- Lisalyn Jacobs, the vice president for government relations at the Legal Momentum

But an updated version of the bill which sought to extend protections to immigrants, gays and lesbians, and Native Americans was met with stiff resistance by many Republicans in the House of Representatives.

As a result, a bill which historically enjoyed bipartisan support took more than a year to finally be reauthorised.

Earlier Al Jazeera's Kimberly Halkett spoke to Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole, a Republican and native American who was one of the strongest supporters of the bill. When she asked him why it was so important to see this act reauthorised, he said:

"Tribal governments need to have the ability to protect their own people and police their own land .... Native Americans are poorer that any other part of the population, they are quite often more isolated and therefore more vulnerable .... Because the jurisdiction has been weak and the law enforcement capacity limited, predators have been attracted to Indian reservations ... We have a crime problem in Indian country .... there's not something wrong with the people in the community, we are just not giving them the same level of protection and the same level of prosecutorial certainty that most Americans and most parts of the country can take for granted."

"Clearly we have a reduction in violence against women and that's something to be celebrated .... I'm pleased, I'm with much that's in the Violence Against Women Act, but if the question is are we doing enough, clearly the answer in my view is no."

- Donna Coker, a law professor at the University of Miami

Why did a bill that historically enjoyed wide bipartisan support take so long to be renewed?

How effective is the Violence against Women Act? And what impact will this updated law have on Native Americans?

Inside Story Americas discusses with guests: Lisalyn Jacobs, the vice president for government relations at the Legal Momentum, a woman's legal defence and education fund; Donna Coker, a law professor at the University of Miami who has also worked in women's shelters in the past; and Sarah Deer, an associate professor at William Mitchell College of Law who was recently named chair of a US Department of Justice federal advisory committee designed to develop protocol for responding to sexual assault in tribal communities.

"It's an incredible symbolic victory in so many ways because Native women have felt left behind by the Violence Against Women Act in past years. ... It's 35 years that we finally have recognition from Congress that Native women need protection from tribal governments or from non-Native men and put that power back in the hands of our tribal governments."

Sarah Deer, an associate professor at William Mitchell College of Law


We spoke to a woman in Mahnomen, Minnesota, who is a survivor of sexual assault and is now helping other women.  Here is her story in her own words:


  • Numerous studies have shown that Native American women residing on Indian reservations are more likely to be victims of violence than women of other ethnicities
  • A 2008 study found that 39 percent of Native American women surveyed had been victims of domestic violence in their lifetime
  • The National Institute of Justice says that 34 percent of Native American women will be raped in their lifetime
  • Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general
  • It is also estimated that 70 percent of violence committed against Native Americans is committed by persons of a different race


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