At a time when there are active efforts being made to educate American citizens about the incredible rate at which Indigenous women are abused, the federal government has shut down. What does this mean to Indigenous women in the United States?
Most domestic violence programs in this country are funded in whole, or in part, by grants from federal and state government through the Department of Justice. The government shutdown has left these programs in the position of trying to develop contingency plans when there are few other options available to assist in their efforts. Where do these women and children go when shelters must close?
When Indigenous women and their children come to a tribal domestic violence shelter, they have no other options. These families are basically throwing themselves at the mercy of tribal governments to protect them and help them get back on their feet – and quickly. Many shelters only allow clients to stay for 30 days. That isn’t very long to fix a life turned upside down by abuse.
Imagine yourself, with your children, moving into a shelter full of other women and children. Imagine the personalities you must surround your family with as you struggle to make a new start to escape the violence and all that comes with it. Imagine trying to explain to your children, and yourself, why this is necessary. Add to that the need to get counseling for yourself and your children so that, as a family, you can start that long journey to healing. Add the need to find a job and daycare from the confines of a shelter when you likely have no transportation of your own. Add the need to find housing for your family that you can afford and sustain on your own as a single parent. These are just the basic necessities and do not speak to things many of us take for granted like a birthday present for your child, school supplies, groceries, gas for a car if you have one, cell phone, beds and bedding, and any number of things that most of us never think too much about. Is it any wonder that many abused women become so overwhelmed that they return to their abuser just to survive?
The government shutdown has the potential to not only shut down shelters but also stop all of the other assistance that abused women and their children need to restart their lives, such as food stamps, WIC, childcare assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, job training programs, healthcare programs, free legal assistance and much more. As each day passes with the government shutdown, the risk that these programs will be unable to assist them becomes more real. As each day of the government shutdown passes, the higher the chance that abused women in shelters will return to their abuser because they have no support.
The statistics are staggering when it comes to abuse of Indigenous women in America. Over 86 percent of us will be physically abused in our lifetime. And 56 percent of us will be sexually abused. We are 10 times more likely to be trafficked, stalked, and murdered. We are truly a minority within a minority. To a large degree we are invisible in this country, and we know it. We know that the only thing keeping us alive is that survival instinct that has been with Indigenous women throughout history and has kept our tribal nations present in today’s world.
Simply surviving is not an acceptable outcome. As more and more of our Indigenous children are raised witnessing violence or are raised by Indigenous women who suffer the coping and co-occurring effects of being beaten and raped, our tribal nations are put at risk. Literally, the future of our tribal nations depends on ending violence against Indigenous women.
In order to stop violence against Indigenous women we need elected leaders from all tribal nations to stand up, let their voices be heard loud and clear that their nations will not tolerate violence against Indigenous women and put tribal resources into programs that help our women and children heal. We need the federal government to stop this shutdown now so that they can provide resources to stop the violence against Indigenous women that has been present from the beginning of colonization at the hands of their ancestors throughout history and at the hands of their peers today. We know that today over 70 percent of the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women are non-native men, so the federal government has a major responsibility to work to stop the violence.
The government shutdown has also stopped the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, VAWA. That act needs to be reauthorized today with even more protections for Indigenous women than was put in place under the 2013 reauthorization. Jurisdictional issues continue to provide a hiding place for abusers even with special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction provided to tribal nations. Currently, tribal nations only have the authority to prosecute non-natives for domestic assault and violations of protective orders. This does not address those crimes of rape, stalking or crimes against minors. Nor does it address those crimes that all too often accompany violence against Indigenous women such as breaking and entering, destruction of property, kidnapping, preventing an emergency phone call, murder and many others. It raises questions of where a crime took place if something as common as a threatening phone call took place and the victim has no way of knowing where the abuser made the phone call (was it trust land or not). It doesn’t address the issue that far too many local district attorneys choose not to prosecute violations of tribal protective orders and far too many local law enforcement agencies choose not to enforce them.
There is currently a national discussion on border security as the reason the federal government has shut down. I would remind you that this government shutdown only increases abuse against Indigenous women. The government shutdown brings the potential outcome of no one answering the phone when an abused woman cries out for help. It assists the abusers, traffickers, and rapists to continue to hurt us because there will be no help to be found.
Indigenous women have the deck stacked against them when it comes to the abuses perpetrated against them and the government shutdown only adds to the growing list of issues that they must overcome in trying to simply live a safe and healthy life with their children. This is something that we should not have to fight for. It should not be something that we have to die waiting for.
Olivia Gray, BSM, MBA, is the Director of the Osage Nation Family Violence Prevention Department. These are her opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Osage Nation or any of its elected leadership.