While access to affordable, timely reproductive health care is an issue for many women across America, it is especially challenging for Native American women, who are twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than any other group in the country. According to RAINN, Native Americans are at the greatest risk of sexual violence, with Native Americans ages 12 and older experiencing on average nearly 6,000 sexual assaults every year.
Since its founding in 1988, the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center has been a leading voice in addressing indigenous women’s reproductive health needs while working to preserve their culture, serving reservation-based women both in the United States and internationally.
Charon Asetoyer, the executive director and CEO of the resource center, has spent decades working to improve Native American women’s reproductive health and justice and says that it’s not an issue of Native American women having a specific health need, but rather having the same access to services, care and systems of justice as other women in America.
One example of this was the fight to get access to Plan B emergency contraception. It took the resource center five years of grassroots organizing and campaigning before over-the-counter availability of Plan B without age restrictions was written into the Indian Health Service — the primary health care provider for Native Americans.
"Everyone else had over-the-counter access, but we did not," Asetoyer explains. "We were being denied access even though it was legal."
Access to emergency contraception is especially important for survivors of sexual assault, which Native American women disproportionately experience. According to a statement released by the resource center in 2015, Native Americans are raped at a rate of nearly double the rate reported by all races annually: 34.1 percent. That means that more than 1 in 3 Native American women are raped in their lifetime. Additionally, the resource center reports that three-fourths of Native American women have experienced some form of sexual assault.
Further complicating matters is the fact that rape kits are frequently mishandled. Asetoyer says that one of the main reasons this happens is because once the rape kits leave the hands of health care providers, they are turned over to law enforcement, where the ball is dropped. The kits are supposed to go to the lab for testing, but either end up sitting there untouched or are tampered with and/or destroyed — making it next to impossible to convict the assailant because of the lack of forensic evidence.
Another major roadblock to prosecuting sex crimes is that most rape and sexual assault cases never make it to court. This is thanks to the 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish, which took the right to arrest and prosecute non-Native American individuals who commit crimes on Native American land out of the hands of Native Americans. According to Asetoyer, those crimes then come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which decides whether or not to even investigate — let alone prosecute — each case.
Since 67 percent of perpetrators who sexually assault or rape Native Americans are non-Native American white males, in most cases, nothing is done.
"So very few cases ever get to court, and we are not afforded equal protection under the law," Asetoyer explains. "It has created a situation where it's open season for sexual assault and rape by non-Natives on reservations."
What you can do to help
Asetoyer says the resource center is working toward getting a formal apology from the U.S. government for the sterilization abuses against Native American women that happened in the 1960s and 1970s. She urges people to contact their legislators in Congress and request an apology for the mass forced sterilization that occurred during the Johnson administration.
You can also donate to the resource center’s GoFundMe campaign, which will help fund their many programs designed to increase access to reproductive and other health care for Native American women, as well as supporting their emergency women’s shelter for those affected by domestic violence.
Additionally, Asetoyer suggests volunteering for organizations that support Native Americans and getting informed and spreading the word on the atrocities and human rights violations perpetrated against the population.
"Read up on what has happened, and don't always assume that you know," she advises.
A version of this article was originally published in October 2017.