Causes and Risk Factors for Violence Against Indigenous Women

Indigenous women face the same causes and risk factors of violence as all women; yet they also face many risk factors related to the past and present marginalization of indigenous peoples.  In their Companion Report to the UN Secretary-General's Study on Violence against Women, the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) found that “for indigenous women, the systematic violation of their collective rights as Indigenous Peoples is the single greatest risk factor for gender-based violence—including violence perpetrated within their communities.”  A variety of factors cause and increase the risk of violence against indigenous women, including a history of oppression, development policies that ignore the needs of indigenous women, armed conflicts, and impunity for perpetrators.

Since colonization, indigenous peoples have faced violence, displacement, discrimination, and forced assimilation.  In reports on violence against indigenous women of the United States and Canada, Amnesty International discusses how the legacy of colonization has impacted indigenous women.  In the U.S. and Canada, indigenous peoples have been evicted from their lands, forced to assimilate at abusive boarding schools, and subject to discriminatory government policies.  The legacy of these policies is poverty and marginalized social status.  European colonizers imposed their ideas about gender roles onto indigenous cultures through missionary work and refusal to trade with women.  As a result, indigenous women’s status in their communities was lowered, creating a greater power imbalance between men and women.  Racist and sexist attitudes toward indigenous women, caused by this history, can precipitate violence.  An attitude that indigenous women have  less value than other members of society makes them a target for violence.  In many other parts of the world, indigenous women have similar histories of oppression.

Development policies that ignore indigenous women’s rights and needs are the contemporary parallel to the legacy of colonization.  Indigenous people continue to be displaced from resource-rich lands, now in the name of development.  According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, indigenous people currently have the right to live on only 6% of all available land, and in some cases those rights are limited.  In a report focusing on Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, India and the Philippines, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, found that the effects of large-scale development projects include “the loss of traditional territories and land, eviction, migration and eventual resettlement, depletion of resources necessary for physical and cultural survival, destruction and pollution of the traditional environment, social and community disorganization, long-term negative health and nutritional impacts as well as, in some cases, harassment and violence.”  Sometimes companies, police, or military groups use violence and threats to shut down opposition to development activities. 

Portrait of Asian Indigenous Women, a publication by Rights and Democracy, outlines the ways development has led to violence against indigenous women in Asia.  Development projects bring the sex industry to rural areas and increase the risk of sexual exploitation or trafficking.  Depletion of natural resources, often an effect of development projects, impacts women in a number of ways.  In indigenous societies, women’s roles are often tied to caring for the land and to providing food security.  When food security is threatened, women lose status in their communities and power relations become more unequal.  Reduced water and fuel supplies result in longer walks for women and a greater risk of harassment or sexual assault.  When women can no longer provide food through subsistence agriculture and foraging, they often become factory or migrant workers, increasing the likelihood that they will be victims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, disappearance, or murder. 

Many indigenous women live in areas affected by armed conflicts.  Indigenous lands may be the subject of a conflict, especially if they contain desired natural resources, or they may simply be the site of conflict.  Indigenous women are frequently targeted for violence even if their peoples are not involved in the surrounding conflict.  Minority Rights Group reports that Twa women in Central Africa have been victims of sexual assault, murder, and genocide as a result of conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. During the Rwandan genocide, up to 30% of the Rwandan Twa population was killed, and many surviving women were victims of brutal sexual violence.  Though the Twa have not taken sides in these conflicts, they are attacked by all factions due to a “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality.  Indigenous women in Colombia and Asia have faced similar patterns of violence.

Impunity for perpetrators is a significant issue in cases of violence against indigenous women.  An Amnesty International report on indigenous women in western Canada found that police have failed to protect indigenous women from crimes and perpetrators have not been adequately prosecuted.  In the U.S., complex rules about jurisdiction on indigenous lands slow the investigation process or prevent it from even starting.  U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that Native American communities have only 55-75% of the law enforcement resources available to similar non-indigenous communities.  From “Maze of Injustice,” Amnesty International (2007).

In the Pacific Islands, traditional forgiveness and reconciliation practices may prevent prosecution, finding of guilt, and punishment in both informal village courts and national courts.  To regain his social standing, all a rapist must do is make a formal apology, which may include giving gifts to the victim’s family.  Participating in traditional apology practices may also greatly lower the severity of punishment for domestic violence.  Apologies cannot be rejected, displaying a higher value of social unity than women’s safety.  From Imrana Jalal, “Harmful Practices against Women in Pacific Island Countries: Customary and Conventional Laws,” Expert Paper for the Expert Group Meeting on Good Practices in Legislation to Address Harmful Practices against Women (2009).

Compiled from:
“Mairin Iwanka Raya: Indigenous Women Stand Against Violence,” International Indigenous Women’s Forum (2006).
“Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada,” Amnesty International (2004).
“Maze of Injustice,” Amnesty International (2007).
“Statistics and Key Facts about Indigenous People,” International Fund for Agricultural Development (Accessed 16 July 2009).
Stavenhagen, Rodolfo, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People,” United Nations Economic and Social Council E/CN.4/2003/90 (2003).
“Portrait of Asian Indigenous Women,” Rights and Democracy (2007).
Jackson, Dorothy, “Twa Women, Twa Rights in the Great Lakes Region of Africa,” Minority Rights Group International (2003).
“Leave Us in Peace: Targeting Civilians in Colombia’s Internal Armed Conflict,” Amnesty International (2008).
Jalal, Imrana, “Harmful Practices against Women in Pacific Island Countries: Customary and Conventional Laws,” Expert Paper for the Expert Group Meeting on Good Practices in Legislation to Address Harmful Practices against Women (2009).