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Pass a Violence Against Women Act that protects American Indian women

Eighty-six percent of the perpetrators of sexual offenses against American Indian women are non-Indian, but tribal police have no authority to detain them. The House must pass a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that includes key protections for American Indian women.

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Rep. Gwen Moore (D) of Wisconsin recounts being sexually assaulted during her childhood and then raped as a young woman as she and other Democrats in the House push for the unrestricted reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Capitol Hill May 16. Op-ed contributor Sherry Hamby says, 'The House should join the Senate in passing a version [of the Violence Against Women Act] that will lead to better protection of American Indian women and girls.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Violence against women is a distressingly common problem in all segments of US society, but American Indian women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence. Data show that a shocking 1 in 3 American Indian women have been raped in their lifetime – twice the national average. The rate of domestic violence victimization is even higher, with more than 2 out of 5 American Indian women experiencing violence at the hands of a husband or boyfriend.

The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, which is the largest US survey devoted to the victimization experiences of children and youth, shows that this vulnerability even extends to American Indian girls. The survey, which is conducted by David Finkelhor, Heather Turner, and myself, found that 1 in 10 American Indian girls have been raped in our sample of youth, which includes 17-year-olds and younger. This is nine times the average for other American girls. We also found that 2 out of 5 American Indian girls have witnessed domestic violence between their parents – a rate that is 2 1/2 times higher than the US average for other girls.

Such high rates of violence are a call to action. The Senate has passed a version of the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act that includes legal reforms that are an important first step toward helping American Indian victims of sexual and family violence. The House of Representatives version was stripped of the provisions to enhance support for American Indian victims. The House needs to agree to pass the Senate version or add these key provisions back when both houses meet in conference to reconcile the two versions.

One striking way that sexual violence against American Indian women is different is that almost all of the perpetrators are non-Indian. Eighty-six percent of the perpetrators of sexual offenses against American Indian women are non-Indian, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data from the US Department of Justice. This differs sharply from patterns for other US ethnic groups.

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