By Rosie Hidalgo and Libby Washburn

Women’s History Month has provided an opportunity for us to shine a light on so many courageous women who have made valuable contributions while overcoming significant barriers and challenges.  This is certainly the case for many survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, whose voices, resilience, leadership, and dedication have paved the way for legal reforms and the creation of services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.  It is that leadership and activism, and the willingness of survivors to tell their stories, that led President Biden to write and champion the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as a senator in 1994. Since then, he has led efforts to ensure that Congress passed legislation renewing and strengthening VAWA three times with bipartisan support: in 2000, 2005, and in his capacity as Vice President in 2013. Each reauthorization of VAWA has improved the legislation by expanding access to safety, services, and support for all victims and survivors. As we mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, we have an opportunity to focus on important ways to enhance prevention efforts and improve the response to sexual assault, including for survivors from historically marginalized communities who face additional barriers to safety and wellbeing.

As President Biden recently stated on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “We must recognize the ways that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of marginalization intersect with and compound one another.” That intersection is central to the President’s executive order establishing the White House Gender Policy Council, which considers the interwoven components of racial equity in its plans to advance gender equity and equality and develop a government-wide approach to ending gender-based violence, both domestically and globally. In order to reach every community and address gender-based violence wherever it exists, we need to bring that broad lens to bear to develop more comprehensive approaches. 

Applying that intersectional frame is imperative to supporting Native American women, for example, who face unique barriers to safety and heightened risks of gender-based violence. Native American women are victimized at higher rates than any other population in the United States, and the vast majority of Native American survivors report being victimized by a non-Native individual. Courageous survivors, like Diane Millich, provided testimony and advocacy during the last reauthorization of VAWA to shine a light on the fact that, because of the complex legal issues of jurisdiction in Indian country, Native American victims of domestic violence could not seek the assistance of Tribal courts or Tribal law enforcement in cases where the abuser was not Native American. Thereafter, VAWA’s 2013 reauthorization included a recognition of the inherent authority of Tribal Courts to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian abusers who commit crimes of domestic violence or dating violence or who violate qualifying protection orders in Indian country. Over time, as more Tribal Courts have taken steps to implement VAWA jurisdiction, these hard-won reforms have proven to be very effective in protecting Native women. However, they have also revealed additional gaps in the law that continue to undermine Native women’s safety.

As efforts are underway once again in Congress to renew and strengthen VAWA, it is imperative that we listen to and heed the voices of survivors, communities, and advocates in order to strengthen our nation’s commitment to improving the response to gender-based violence. Native American women are leading advocacy efforts to expand the special criminal jurisdiction of Tribal courts. They have shared stories of Native women being sexually assaulted by non-Indian offenders while working on Tribal land, and not being able to seek justice because Tribal law enforcement and courts still lack jurisdiction to hold non-Indian offenders accountable for those crimes if they do not qualify as crimes of domestic violence or dating violence. Recently, the Domestic Policy Council and Gender Policy Council cohosted a listening session with Tribal judges, advocates, and survivors about the pressing need for expanding the jurisdictional provisions in VAWA to protect Native women, children, and the elderly, and to also allow prosecutions when Tribal law enforcement officers are assaulted while responding to these cases.

The VAWA Reauthorization Act of 2021, which recently passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support, includes important provisions that respond to the voices of survivors and advocates. This bill would build on the successes of the 2013 VAWA reauthorization by reaffirming inherent tribal authority to prosecute certain non-Indian offenders — extending the same protections from domestic violence and dating violence to Native American victims of sexual violence, stalking, trafficking, child abuse, elder abuse, and assault against law enforcement or justice personnel when crimes are committed on Tribal territory.

VAWA reauthorization is crucial, especially when the pandemic and economic crisis have further exacerbated the risks of abuse and the barriers to safety for women across the United States. The Biden-Harris Administration will continue to make reauthorization a top priority, and the President has urged the Senate to swiftly pass the VAWA Reauthorization Act of 2021. As we commemorate Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, we must recommit ourselves to preventing sexual assault and improving our response for all survivors — including by addressing the unique challenges faced by Native American women — and strive to uphold the dignity and human right of all people to live free from sexual violence.

Rosie Hidalgo is Special Assistant to the President for Gender Policy and Senior Advisor for Gender-Based Violence.

Libby Washburn is Special Assistant to the President for Native Affairs for the Domestic Policy Council.

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