FARMINGTON — A key federal law protecting citizens against domestic violence is going through revisions, again, and some of those include extra efforts to help protect Native American women.
Native American women, after all, are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women in the general population -- as well as stalking, sexual assault and rape -- according to reports from the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women.
However, congressional lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives failed to agree on proposed changes to the “Violence Against Women Act” during last year's session. The law was first introduced in 1994, but expired in 2011, after efforts to renew it failed. A vote to reauthorize the act is expected this week.
“These protections are especially important for immigrant women, women of color, and Native Americans, who experience the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to the Senate on Thursday.
“Further, it is essential that these protections be extended to all instances of intimate partner violence, including violence involving lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people,” the letter said.
Most objections raised by lawmakers involved protections for immigrant women and people not in heterosexual relationships -- not those for Native American women.
For Native American women, the revisions to the law are intended to help fund domestic violence prevention and community education programs.
“I don't even think there's a Navajo word for rape or sexual assault,” said Eleana Butler, executive director of Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico in Farmington, which is just 45 minutes away from the Navajo Nation.
“When a Native American person is assaulted, they don't necessarily want to go to their local services in their small communities,” Butler said.
Of the more than 100 women that come in to take advantage of those services each year, about 60 percent are Native American, Butler said, and it has been that way for almost a decade. Most of those women are Navajo since the tribe is so near.
Men also use the services from time to time, though the organization usually sees no more than 20 a year, she said.
In many Native American communities, including those that are Navajo, domestic abuse — both physical and emotional — is not talked about since there is a stigma around it, Butler said.
Yet, local and national organizations say the families and communities need to start talking about it as soon as possible.
“A lot of them (the Navajo men) are not growing up with traditional teachings,” said Esther Keeswood, a tribal court advocate with DNA-People's Legal Services in Shiprock, which is on the Navajo Nation.
DNA is a nonprofit legal aid organization that assists Navajo people. The organization takes about 150 domestic violence cases each year.
Strengthening the legal system also is important, though the federal governments already are doing that to an extent, Keeswood said. One of the ongoing efforts by both is to ensure that non-Native Americans cannot commit crimes against Native Americans and get away with it.
This has been an issue in the past because of the different jurisdictions.
Changes in tribal law, as well as revisions to the Violence Against Women Act, are making the issue less confusing, Keeswood said.
“We're breaking the cycle,” she said.