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Bellows: VAWA Must Protect All Americans

As final negotiations on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act continue, as noted in Meredith Shiner’s recent article “Last Ditch Effort on VAWA Under Way,” (Roll Call, Dec. 7) the American Bar Association urges Congress to remember that VAWA must protect all Americans.

Victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking deserve to be protected, regardless of who they are. Predators need to be punished. But under our law, Native American women are not effectively protected, and the controversial House of Representatives’ version of the Violence Against Women Act would do nothing to address the problem.

Native American women are left vulnerable even though they are more likely to be the targets of rape and violence than any other demographic group. If a woman is assaulted on nontribal lands, police can arrest her attacker and that person can be processed through the local justice system. Not so on tribal lands. Instead, if a Native woman is the victim of domestic or sexual violence by a non-Indian attacker on tribal lands, her attacker is apt to go free.

Tribal law enforcement cannot fully protect Native American women. Non-Native Americans cannot be arrested for raping, beating or stalking Native Americans on their own lands. Instead, tribal officials can only hold perpetrators until local, state or federal law enforcement arrive. Sometimes law enforcement never does.

What’s more, tribal nations are prohibited by U.S. law from prosecuting major crimes committed by non-Natives on Indian reservations. State or federal law enforcement is required to step in. But U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute half of violent crimes on reservations between 2005 and 2009. Sixty-seven percent of those cases were related to sexual abuse.

Across two decades, VAWA has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. We commend the Senate for its version of the VAWA reauthorization bill. Legislators crossed party lines and updated the law to fulfill the intent of the original bipartisan legislation by extending protections to all victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Under the Senate version of VAWA, attackers of Native American women will face consequences. The tribal court would gain jurisdiction to try those accused of domestic violence, while guaranteeing all the U.S. constitutional rights that defendants retain no matter where they are tried. The House bill does not offer the same protection for victims of domestic violence.

The House version of VAWA does not protect victims on tribal lands. It is not only weaker than the Senate bill, but it also silences entire categories of victims. It perpetuates the idea that some survivors should feel guilty for being victimized and are unworthy of community support. The House bill essentially provides a two-tier system of justice; one level for most victims and another level that excludes from justice victims who are among the most vulnerable. That is why the American Bar Association supports the Senate bill, which protects all victims.

Laurel G. Bellows is the president of the American Bar Association.

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