Updated Violence Against Women Act Boosts Protections for Native Survivors

Despite 50% of Native American and Alaska Native women having experienced sexual violence at the hands of non-Native offenders, for decades those perpetrators were able to skirt justice due to murky jurisdiction and tribal courts’ limited resources. The reauthorized act now gives tribes resources and support to prosecute these types of offences.

By Emiene Wright

March 17, 2022

President Biden praised the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which rectifies old loopholes that allowed non-Native offenders to escape punishment for assaults on tribal lands.

President Joe Biden congratulated lawmakers, advocates and officials during remarks Wednesday marking the long-delayed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

“No one, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, should experience abuse. Period. And if they do they should have the service and support to get through it, and we’re not going to rest,” Biden said.

The law, aimed at supporting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, must be renewed every five years, but stalled in recent years due to the “boyfriend loophole,” which would have prevented former dating partners convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms. Democrats fought to ratify the clause, but Republicans and the powerful National Rifle Association lobby stonewalled. It was dropped in favor of ensuring the bill’s passage.

An important update that did remain in the bill, which was signed into law Tuesday as part of a $1.5 trillion mega spending bill that passed Congress, was increased protection for women, children, and elders in tribal communities.

According to Amnesty International, over 50% of Native American and Alaska Native women have experienced sexual violence, more than double the national average. Of the Native women who have experienced sexual violence, 96% did at the hands of at least one non-Native perpetrator. Previously, non-Indian perpetrators who didn’t live on tribal land could escape accountability due to murky jurisdiction and the courts’ limited resources.

The reauthorized act restores tribal criminal jurisdiction over perpetrators, allowing tribes to arrest, prosecute, and sentence offenders for serious crimes that have too long gone unpunished.

“Tribal courts will now be able to exercise jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault and sex trafficking,” Biden said. “And we’re providing more support for legal services and for law enforcement to get the training they need to help handle the trauma survivors are experiencing.”

Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who represents North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District that includes the tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, opposed the act when it passed the House in 2021.

In addition to ensuring Native communities get the support they need to hold perpetrators accountable, the reauthorization of VAWA also ensures all current grant programs—including those that offer survivors housing assistance, legal aid, and more—are funded through 2027.


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