April 25th is dedicated to the elimination of violence against indigenous women and girls. The prevalence of violence against these women is significantly higher than against non-indigenous women; it is a pandemic inflicted by both indigenous community members and perpetrators from wider society. Such violence is expansive and severe. It manifests in femicide, intimate partner violence, rape, sexual slavery, trafficking, genital mutilation, child marriage, and many other harmful practices. To exemplify the severity of such violence, a recent study found that in Australia, Aboriginal mothers are 17.5 times more likely to suffer homicide than non-indigenous mothers. Similar disproportionality exists in Canada: despite indigenous women only constituting 6% of the total population, over 60% of missing women are identified as indigenous. These statistics are appalling and distressing, and tragically represent only a small portion of the entire issue.
The marginalization endured by indigenous communities has resulted in an extreme plight in the realms of poverty, eviction from ancestral lands, and inadequate access to education, healthcare and other essential services. This lack of decent living conditions often coerces indigenous women and girls into high-risk situations: partaking in sex work and drug trades, or living in dangerous housing. Increased exposure to these precarious environments significantly heightens their risk of experiencing violence.
Further, the legacy of imperialism has left many indigenous systems of governance redundant or impaired, critically inhibiting the power of indigenous communities to address instances of violence through culturally appropriate avenues. On the other hand, where indigenous communities still adhere to their own systems of governance, members of such communities are unlikely to attain formal civil documentation (such as birth certificates or national identity). Consequently, many indigenous women who have been victim of violence face significant barriers in accessing justice or state services, failing to meet formal eligibility criteria. Moreover, many indigenous women are unaware about the rights they may hold, or the protective services which may be of benefit to them.
The significant underreporting of the incidence of violence, coupled with the severe lack of disaggregated data and research, renders the prevention and punishment of such violence extremely problematic. This is worsened manifold by the additional interjection of institutional bias. Indigenous women who overcome the prior barriers mentioned may face severe discrimination and prejudice once present within state outreach services. This inherent bias is explicit in Australia: only 2% of women nationwide identify as being of Aboriginal origin, yet indigenous women constitute a staggering one-third of the female prison population.
This innate prejudice also results in extremely high levels of impunity, conjuring a mistrust of state systems among indigenous communities, further deterring indigenous female victims from seeking centralized justice. This impunity is widespread in Canada, where reports of missing indigenous women or suspicious deaths are flagged as low priority, withdrawing resources and closing case files without sufficient investigation.
On the international plane, there is a sentiment of concern about the prevalence of violence against indigenous women; however, this expressed intent has not yet been matched in practical action. The most appropriate approach remains a highly-contested issue, with key players firmly disagreeing on whether to promote indigenous self-determination or state intervention. A self-determination framework would focus on empowering indigenous peoples to strengthen their own systems of governance; this in turn, would enable them to combat gender-based violence within their communities through culturally appropriate means. Contrastingly, state intervention frameworks are premised on the notion that violations of indigenous women’s rights should be litigated within centralized state justice systems, holding perpetrators accountable at the state level.
The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, has insisted that eliminating violence against indigenous women requires nations to address colonial legacies and indigenous discrimination. Anaya advocates an increased emphasis on self-determination, asserting that indigenous justice systems may be better equipped to handle gender-based violence than State legal systems. He further encourages States parties to actively involve indigenous peoples within programs aimed at the prevention of violence against indigenous women and girls, guaranteeing cultural sensitivity. A more pertinent focus on advancing self-determination would ensure that the necessary services, such as women’s shelters or reporting services, would be culturally tailored to the intended users. It would ensure that indigenous women are not discouraged from escaping violent relationships, or situations of harm, due to the fear of experiencing discrimination against their culture.
There is a legitimate concern that leaving indigenous communities to their own devices could keep the vicious cycle of domestic violence intact. Calls for cultural sensitivity may arguably provide states with a free pass to turn a blind eye to the gender-based violence occurring within insular indigenous communities. However, the UN Committee on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples insists that indigenous peoples must repeal or remedy any gender inequities, harmful practices, or patriarchal cultures within their own communities. This perspective is advocated by Tarcila Rivera Zea (UN Forum Member and founder of the Center of Indigenous Cultures of Peru); she insists that “[we] must not go against our cultures, but against the cultural practices that hurt us and violate our human rights as indigenous women”. This presents a compromised medium, wherein indigenous systems of governance retain their authority, and cultural legacy, only to the extent that they promote equality between the sexes.
Others advocate for increased state intervention, ensuring indigenous women who have been victims of violence have equal access to justice. These proponents point to the 2016 landmark Sepur Zarco case: justice was finally served to 11 indigenous women, victims to heinous sexual and domestic slavery, rape and enforced disappearance at the hands of the military during the Guatemalan Civil War. This judgment is promising: it sets a powerful precedent that grave violations of indigenous women’s rights will be upheld in courts of law. State intervention may therefore reduce incidence of violence against indigenous women to a deterrent extent, and serve justice to those who have tragically fallen victim previously. However, such justice may be meaningless for many indigenous women, where it fails to translate within their own culture, language, or normative understanding.
One thing is certain: the imperative to eliminate violence against indigenous women and girls must be prioritised on the international agenda. The State obligation to ensure “the full protection” of indigenous women and girls against “all forms of violence and discrimination” has already been enshrined in Article 22 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The onus is now upon states to guarantee the fulfilment of this clause, motivated by the ultimate objective of eradicating all forms of violence against all women. The violence endured by indigenous women, both historically and at present, is severe, widespread and tragic. Whether political frameworks opt for self-determination or state intervention approaches remains to be seen; however, the prospect of a culturally sensitive, equality-driven middle ground is extremely promising.