Barriers to reporting sexual violence in Indigenous communities

(Photo: Molly Belle)

For Native American History Month, RAINN looks at some of the barriers to reporting sexual assault that survivors in Indigenous communities in the U.S. may face

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

Indigenous people in the U.S. face higher rates of sexual violence than the general population, and the majority of these sexual assaults are perpetrated by individuals outside of Indigenous communities.

During Native American History Month this November, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) is looking at some of the barriers to reporting sexual assault that survivors in Indigenous communities — which consist of 6.8 million people and hundreds of individual communities — in the U.S. may face if they experience sexual violence.

Non-Indigenous perpetrators cannot be prosecuted for rape by tribal courts for crimes committed on tribal land and against Indigenous people. “When most sexual violence against Indigenous populations is committed by people outside of those communities, this rule means that survivors in Indigenous communities may be less likely to report,” says Keeli Sorensen, vice president of victim services at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Some Indigenous communities also have tense relations with law enforcement in local non-Indigenous communities, so they may feel that reporting sexual violence to non-tribal law enforcement is not an option for them, especially if the perpetrator is not Indigenous.

There is also often a lack of federal and state funding for law enforcement agencies on tribal lands, meaning that there are fewer resources available to survivors looking to report and that law enforcement officers may not have received appropriate training on trauma-informed police sexual assault investigations.

In addition to issues of prosecuting and funding sexual assault cases in tribal jurisdictions, another roadblock that makes survivors less likely to report is lack of access to sexual assault forensic exams. The DNA collected in these exams is often vital to providing evidence to prosecute perpetrators, but survivors in some areas may never get the chance to have this evidence collected if there are no local nurses trained to conduct the exams.

“For some Indigenous survivors in remote areas, the closest location to get an exam is a plane-ride away. Imagine paying hundreds of dollars for a plane ticket and having to sit for hours in the clothing you were assaulted in, unable to shower, alone, and in shock,” says Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy. “You can see why many people would choose not to go through with reporting in this situation.”

There often are also cultural barriers that can prevent survivors from reporting or getting help. Indigenous survivors may be less likely to report sexual violence due to worries of not being believed by law enforcement or medical professionals outside of their community.

The experiences of these communities are varied and nuanced, and are not easy to summarize. The StrongHearts Native Helpline offers resources for survivors of sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and stalking that have been designed by individuals within these communities.

For more information, read statistics that show how sexual violence disproportionately affects Indigenous populations in the U.S., learn how to support a loved one, and check out National Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors and Loved Ones.

A note on language: The term “Indigenous” is used here to describe many individuals in distinct and unique communities whose lands are within the U.S. and who define their identities in a variety of ways, including: American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native American.

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