Gender and Development

Underreported: Illuminating the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls

Indigenous women are disproportionately victims of violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence all over the world. Katie Dobosz Kenney assesses this issue in the North American context as well as its global implications.


Indigenous women and girls all over the world experience violence in higher percentages than their non-indigenous counterparts. According to a report by the United Nations Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues entitled Elimination and Responses to Violence, Exploitation, and Abuse of Indigenous Girls, Adolescents, and Young Women, the collective experience of violence against indigenous women and girls, “is closely linked to the history of colonization, poverty and exclusion of their wider communities – best contextualized in terms of the intersections of race, ethnicity, disability, age, sex and location and mutually reinforcing forms of inequalities.” Indigenous women play an integral role in the preservation of cultural traditions, language, and agricultural and sustainable practices of their communities; thereby, and as the report indicates, formal mechanisms of protection should be contextually and culturally relevant. The absence of the stories of indigenous women and girls in the media contributes to further marginalization, the suppression of indigenous voices, and a general lack of awareness of indigenous communities and their fundamental contributions to our global society.

In North America, indigenous women are disproportionately victims of violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence; so much so, that the crisis is known as murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW). In the United States alone, indigenous women comprise only 0.4% of the population at large, but represent approximately 0.7% of all missing persons cases. According to the Associated Press, indigenous women in many tribal nations are murdered at a rate more than 10 times that of non-indigenous women in the U.S.

The visibility of this issue is low in the United States. Without any established mechanisms for dialogue or meaningful education, a majority of U.S. citizens are ignorant or even apathetic to indigenous issues, despite federal legislative action on violence against indigenous women and girls as recently as last week. On December 6, the Senate unanimously passed Savanna’s Act, a bill presented by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to standardize the reporting and tracking of missing indigenous persons. The act is named after Savanna LaFontaine Greywind, a pregnant Dakota woman who was abducted and murdered in the summer of 2017.

Savanna’s murder and name-sake bill made very few domestic headlines in the U.S., as reporting on indigenous issues is minimal. Because the United States has yet to formalize any large-scale approach to communicate with and proactively mitigate the hardships faced by native communities, basic human rights, such as the blatant indigenous voter suppression in North Dakota during the 2018 midterm elections, go unprotected

By comparison, in Canada under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, more direct action has been taken to strengthen the protection of indigenous peoples. This includes action to address the MMIW crisis through the launch of the National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016. But despite present-day efforts, Canada’s insidious track record of the mistreatment of indigenous communities, unfortunately, remains pervasive. In January 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed in the province of Saskatchewan representing at least 60 indigenous women who underwent forced or coerced sterilization procedures after giving birth in public hospitals. The forced or coerced sterilization of marginalized and minority communities has occurred in many moments of our global history. In the United States, India, China, Peru, and Puerto Rico, forced sterilization has been wielded as a weapon of control and humiliation, perpetuating institutional classism, sexism, and racism steeped in colonial history.

The class action lawsuit overseen by attorney Alisa Lombard was filed shortly after an external review on the matter was released in July 2017. Conducted by Canadian senator, Yvonne Boyer and one of Canada’s first and leading Aboriginal medical doctors, Judith Bartlett, the review investigated reports dating back to 2015 of forced tubal ligation in Aboriginal women in Saskatchewan’s public hospitals. A tubal ligation involves the irreversible sautering, cutting, or tying of a woman’s fallopian tubes. Women reported this procedure taking place almost immediately after giving birth, either wholly without their knowledge or their ability to meaningfully consent to the procedure. The report validated and confirmed the pervasive use of forced and coerced sterilization and provided recommendations and action items to definitively end the practice.

The lawsuit has received the global attention from international human rights organizations like Amnesty International, and commissions at the highest level including the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner’s Committee Against Torture. On December 7, the U.N. Committee Against Torture released a report of findings, citing forced sterilization as an already recognized mechanism of torture. The Committee charged the Canadian government with the following actions items: 1) conduct an impartial investigation into the claims; 2) prevent and criminalize the practice of forced sterilization. Canada’s Labor party is currently working to establish an inter-agency approach to end this violent practice, stating that, “federal, provincial, territorial, Indigenous governments and organizations all have a role to play.”

The 2018 midterm elections in the United States saw the election of the first two native women to the House of Representatives, which is strikingly emblematic of the extensive work the U.S. and countries around the world have to do in empowering, elevating, and protecting indigenous women, their voices, and the communities they represent. Our collective call to action should begin with educating ourselves and our communities about the issues faced by indigenous women and girls and what we can do to mitigate these startling statistics and human rights violations. We as citizens of our respective nations can mobilize grassroots support for greater representation, better protection, and more humane treatment of indigenous citizens. From law enforcement to the medical field and from the classroom to the government, citizens of all nations should be collaborating with their indigenous brothers and sister to enact relevant policies to protect, elevate, and empower indigenous peoples.   

Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie has developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa, UAE, and Rwanda.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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