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Women's Health Education Program Scholars' Projects

Indigenous Women, Sexual Assault and Healthcare Access

Natalie DiCenzo, WHEP Scholar

WHEP Scholar Natalie DiCenzo

Native American women in the United States have the highest incidence of sexual assault of any women in the country. A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) to examine the many forms of violence among American Indian and Alaska Native women and men. The study showed that of over 2,473 women surveyed, 84% of American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, 56% have experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner, 67% have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner, and 49% have experienced stalking. That makes more than 730,000 American Indian and Alaska Native women who have experienced violence in the past year. Given that 70% of sexual assaults of Native women are never reported, even this record number is likely to be an underestimate.

In order to begin to understand the broader context for these statistics, it is necessary to examine the historical legacy of human rights violations against Native peoples. What social, economic, and political factors have impacted the rate of sexual assault in tribal communities? How can the invisibility of survivors be understood? What are the consequences of the lack of meaningful responses for survivors, their families, and their community?

A number of intersecting factors contribute to the disproportionately high prevalence of intimate partner violence in Native communities. The influence of the federal government, limited access to resources, and the impact of historical trauma all coalesce and lead to the epidemic that we see today. While this multidimensional integration of violence within the colonial context of the United States makes its elimination challenging, healthcare providers are in a unique position to advocate for Native women and survivors of abuse both on an individual and systemic level by recognizing the societal context as a factor that perpetuates violence, decolonizing American society, eradicating stereotypes, recognizing and addressing the global context of violence, moving toward activism and advocacy, and cultivating the will to change.

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