Notes from the Netroots: A Maze of Injustice

Amie Newman

Notes from Netroots Nation: indigenous women report the highest rates of rape and violence than any other group in the United States. Read about what's happening in our own country and how we can help.

There is no good reason this issue should be as invisible as it is.
Indigenous women living on reservations are the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence at a higher rate than any other group in the United States.

The first panel I attended at Netroots Nation, happening in Austin, TX this week, Examining the Maze of Injustice: Our Nation’s Failure to Protect Indigenous Women From Violence explored the difficulties for indigenous women in prosecuting and seeking justice for these crimes, living on the reservation, and the ways in which these women, in tandem with Amnesty International and "the netroots" have been battling the problem.

And while I think it’s somewhat of an injustice that only 8 or so attendees were there, the netroots has stepped up in enormous ways for this issue.

For years, Georgia Littlefield and other women’s advocates "banged their heads against the walls of Congress" to try and get our representatives to pay attention to the dire situation on Native American reservations. And for years they were ignored.

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Georgia Littlefield is the director of the Pretty Bird Woman House on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. PBWH is a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter for indigenous women and their children who have been victims of abuse.

But until last year they were stuffed into a 3 bedroom apartment, donated by the community, with no heat and no real security to speak of. Their apartment was vandalized. The phone lines were cut. When a woman who had been raped or assaulted came to the office, they would call the police – only to have them never show up or appear suddenly 3 days later. Georgia found herself taking photos of the women for evidence, on her own. Finally, with very little resources to speak of, they were about to move the whole operation into Georgia’s apartment, when "the netroots" heard about the story, and that all changed. Quickly, a web page with a link to donate online was set up for them. And blogger/activists raised over $100,000 to set them up in a new house, with heat and a security system that, according to Georgia, "…everyone knows about. No one is vandalizing us now."

But the situation is still dire.

Prosecutions for rape and domestic violence that occur on the reservation are slim and, it seems, no one – not even the federal government – knows whose responsibilty it is, ultimately, to ensure justice for indigenous women; thus the "maze of injustice".

According to
Tinnekkia Williams-Three Legs, another advocate and victim of violence and injustice herself, often times officials show up in reference to a case and look at each other with confusion: does it fall under tribal authority (BIA), state authority or federal authority? 86% of rapes on the reservations are perpetrated by non-native men. Who prosecutes them? It is true that all of these cases fall under federal authority – according to Amnesty International who created the report "Maze of Injustice" that the panel title refers to – the federal government has an obligation to protect the human rights of women around the world. But because of consistent underfunding of BIA and Indian Health Services (IHS) and no real baseline of information there is a real lack of support. And the federal governement rarely takes these cases on – leaving the tribal authorities with little inclination to take the cases on either.

Amnesty International has come in to help and advocates like Georgia and Tinnekkia are making things happen. There is now legislation, passed in the House, that seeks to ensure there is a sexual assault protocol for health care providers in IHS, sexual assault nurse examiners
to provide services to women in order to ensure that there are rape kits done for evidence, and more funding – all in the name of protecting indigineous women in this country.

For years, indigenous women, victims of violence, rape and assault have been silenced with no recourse. Our federal government has not provided the funding, resources or attention needed to ensure their basic human rights are met.

The report put out by AI – the report that has led to this legislation – has helped.

Georgia Littlefield tells the group that in the past, IHS has not done rape kits but instead sends them off of the reservation, 90 miles away, to Bismarck. There they call a criminal investigator and occasionally, he’ll make it up to the reservation but rarely. Thus, the women get no support, and dont’ see any real resolution to their cases – everyone is shirking the responsibility to make a case, prosecute a case and take care of these women. A lot of the women haven’t been prosecuting the cases because they know nothing would happen. With the support of bloggers and AI, this legislation holding IHS and the federal government’s feet to the fire, would mandate the tracking of cases and how many are being prosecuted, turned down and won or lost.

Tinnekkia says that while the support of the netroots and bloggers has been unbelievable, we must keep it up. Pretty Bird Woman House is currently writing grants for legal assistance and a sexual assault program. And Georgia tells me, when asked about the availability and access to emergency contraception on the reservation, they have no money to pay for EC. She says, "We’d like to be able to make emergency contraception available, but we can’t pay for it."

And though AI’s report has been integral to making progress with this issue, it is has been thanks to women like Georgia and Tinnekkia – brave women fighting to protect, ensure justice and care for "their women" – that life is changing on the reservation for women little by little.

Pretty Bird Woman House is now housed in a new, 3 bedroom home, and manages to serve 7 women and 3 children currently.

If you’d like to help ensure that they can not only serve the women in their community but provide crucial education and community programs that educate their entire community about sexual assault, rape and domestic violence, you can read more about them and donate here.

Some potential good news came this week for Native Americans with the Senate’s passage of PEPFAR and an amendment providing $2 billion dollars for IHS and law enforcement on reservations.  Scott mentioned the amendment in his Senate PEPFAR debate tracking post and KaiserNetwork summarizes the details of the PEPFAR bill and the IHS amendment.

Don’t forget! If you’re at Netroots Nation this week, Rewire’s Breaking the Frame: Revitalizing and Redefining Reproductive Rights Media Coverage is this Saturday at 3pm. Join me, Amanda Marcotte, Marcela Howell, Andrea Camp and Eesha Pandit for a fantastic discussion!

Commentary Human Rights

A Sterilized Peruvian Woman Seeks Justice From the Americas’ Highest Human Rights Court

Cynthia Soohoo & Suzannah Phillips

I.V.'s case, I.V. v. Bolivia, illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

In 2000, a Peruvian political refugee referred to by her initials, “I.V.,” went to a Bolivian public hospital to deliver her third child. According to court documents, the doctors decided during the cesarean section that a future pregnancy would be dangerous for I.V. and performed a tubal ligation—for which they claimed they had I.V.’s consent. When I.V. learned that she had been sterilized two days later, she said, she was devastated.

After her complaint against the surgeon who sterilized her was dismissed by Bolivian courts, I.V. brought her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court), which heard oral arguments earlier this month. In a region where there are widespread reports of forced sterilization, the case is the first time the court will consider whether nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation.

The IA Court should hand down its decision in the coming months. A favorable ruling in this case by the IA Court—the highest human rights court in the Americas—could require Bolivia to, among other things, pay reparations to I.V., investigate and possibly punish the doctors who sterilized her, and take steps to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. The decision will also have ramifications across the region, establishing a binding legal precedent for the 25 countries that are party to the American Convention on Human Rights.

I.V. v. Bolivia provides an important opportunity for the IA Court to condemn forced sterilization and to adopt clear standards concerning informed consent. It would also be joining U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court of Human Rights in recognizing that forced sterilization violates fundamental human rights to personal integrity and autonomy, to be free from gender discrimination and violence, to privacy and family life, and, as CUNY Law School’s Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic and Women Enabled International recently argued in our amicus brief to the IA Court, to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture.

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Further, the European Court and U.N. experts recognize that possible health risk from a future pregnancy cannot justify nonconsensual sterilization because there are alternative contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy and women must be given the time and information needed to make an informed choice about sterilization. The IA Court should make similar findings.

Unlike the sterilization of Mexican immigrant women in the United States in the 1970s, recently portrayed in the documentary No Más Bebés, I.V.’s case doesn’t appear to involve a broad governmental policy of sterilizing poor or immigrant women. But it illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

Indeed, forced and coerced sterilization is disproportionately perpetrated around the world against women in stigmatized groups, such as women living with HIV, poor women, ethnic or national minorities, or women with disabilities because some health-care providers believe that such women should not have children. Whether driven by animosity against certain women, stereotypes that these women are unfit to become parents, or a paternalistic notion that “doctor knows best,” the end result is the same: Women are permanently robbed of their capacity to have children without their consent.

The parties contest whether I.V. orally consented to sterilization during her c-section. But even if she did so, medical ethical standards and decisions from U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court make clear that consent obtained during labor or immediately preceding or after delivery cannot be valid because the circumstances surrounding delivery—due to pain, anesthesia, or other factors—are inherently inconsistent with voluntary patient choice.

I.V. delivered at a public hospital that predominantly treats indigent women, many of whom are indigenous or migrants. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—which effectively acts as a court of first instance for the IA Court—considered the case before it went to the IA Court and noted the special vulnerability of migrant women seeking health care in Bolivia, given their reliance on public services and the lack of care options. It found that I.V.’s medical team was influenced by “gender stereotypes on the inability of women to make autonomous” reproductive decisions. It further concluded that the decision to sterilize I.V. without proper consent reflected notions that the medical staff was “empowered to take better medical decisions than the woman concerned regarding control over reproduction.”

Sixteen years after her sterilization, I.V. still acutely feels the emotional and psychological toll of having been sterilized. Because of the severity of physical and mental harms that forced sterilization imposes upon women, the Inter-American Court should join the European Court of Human Rights and U.N. human rights experts in recognizing that forced sterilization constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and may constitute torture.

In addition to condemning forced sterilization, the IA Court should recognize the multiple human rights violations I.V. suffered. The Inter-American human rights system protects women from gender-based discrimination and violence and violations of the right to personal integrity, information, privacy, and family life, all of which are at issue in this case.

Culture & Conversation Violence

Breaking Through the Fear: How One Woman Investigated the Life of Her Rapist

Ilana Masad

Ignorance is caused by fear, reporter Joanna Connors writes, and it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped, she begins the process of trying to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.”

She was fine. That’s what she told everyone, including herself. After filing a report with the Cleveland police and getting her rapist locked up, she was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Except she wasn’t.

In I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, reporter Joanna Connors realizes that she is most assuredly not fine during a college campus visit with her daughter.

Ignorance is caused by fear, Connors writes. And it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped—she immediately reported her rape to the police, and her rapist was caught the next day—she begins the process of breaking through the fear to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.” She had thought she was over it, but it wasn’t until breaking down during that college tour that she realized she was still afraid of her rapist and still terrified he would find her.

When Connors was 30, she went to a Case Western Reserve University theater where a rehearsal of a play that she was covering for her newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, was taking place.

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A man inside the empty theater—the actors had left by the time Connors arrived—beckoned her inside, saying that he was working on the lights. Then, brandishing a sharpened pair of scissors, he threatened to kill her if she didn’t do what he said and spent more than an hour raping her.

The chapter detailing her rape is chilling, as she describes the various acts performed, the way she went along with what her rapist told her to do, coaxing him on, hoping to make the ordeal end more quickly. By describing specifics of her rape, Connors is confronting and stripping away the shame she experienced by showing the reader the cold, hard facts of what a rape can be like.

Her words demonstrate how a person who was raped becomes a survivor. Even in her dissociative state, she didn’t want to die there at the hands of a man she didn’t know. She managed to convince him to stop and leave, and he kissed her goodbye outside, as if what had just happened was completely, utterly normal. Maybe, for him, a man whom she says was smoking menthols and who had a tattoo on his arm with his own name on it—”DAVE”—it was.

Connors found an eerie irony in that she was raped on a college campus before such rapes were more widely discussed. In recent years, there has been a rise in awareness regarding the frequency of rapes at institutions of higher learning. There are now websites dedicated to explaining the statistics as well as documentaries like The Hunting Ground, which explores the sexual violence that happens on U.S. college campuses and how students are pushing back against institutional cover-ups and injustices. Since Connors’ experience, society has begun to more broadly understand the terms “rape” and “sexual assault,” and there has been more discussion about the rapes and sexual assaults that happen within existing relationships; eight out of ten rapes occur between people who know one another.

It’s perhaps less common these days to find discussions of the other kind of rape: the kind that we’re warned about when we’re young and told not to take candy from strangers, the kind that makes us automatically cross the street when a group of men we find threatening happens to be walking toward us, the kind that happens when a complete stranger attacks us. This was Connors’ experience.

I Will Find You takes the reader through two distinct processes. The first is Connors’ discovery that her rapist may have been a sexual-violence survivor in his own right. The second, which carries the narrative, is how Connors came to terms with how being raped by David Francis, the “DAVE”-tattooed man, separated her life into a “before” and an “after.”

Before the rape, she was a reporter who lived largely without fear. Connors explains that she went into the theater, where her rapist, a young Black man, was beckoning her, for one reason: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”

But after, she writes, “this new fear of black men shamed me more than the rape.” Connors explains she didn’t want to be the stereotypical white woman of privilege, who clutches her purse and crosses the street when she sees a Black man walking her way. As a woman aware of her socioeconomic and racial privilege, she didn’t want to participate in oppression.

But it wasn’t just Black men that she feared—it was everything:

I turned my life into performance art. I acted normal, or as normal as I could manage, all the while living on my secret island of fear. As time went on, the list of my fears continued to grow. I was afraid of flying. Afraid of driving. Afraid of riding in a car while someone else drove. Afraid of driving over bridges. Afraid of elevators. Afraid of enclosed spaces. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of going into crowds. Afraid of being alone. Afraid, most of all, to let my children out of my sight.

From the outside, my performance worked. I looked and acted like most other mothers. Only I knew that my entire body vibrated with dread, poised to flee when necessary.

Years after her rape, Connors tells her children about it—both were born after the living nightmare in the theater and are college-aged by then—and begins to confront the fact that she has never “gotten over” it, even though she’s told countless therapists that she has. It is then, despite her husband’s protests and her own fears, that she decides that she must also confront her ignorance regarding her rapist and find him, just as he once threatened that he would find her.

Connors’ investigation is difficult, as she finds out almost at once that her rapist died in a prison hospital some years before. This, however, doesn’t stop her: She begins to investigate his family, trying to find anyone who may have known him and could explain, perhaps, why he did what he did.

Connors regards what she finds out about her rapist with empathy. Connors doesn’t forgive and forget—rather, she forgives, in a sense, by remembering, by finding others who remember, by dredging up a past that is as unpleasant for her interviewees as it is for her.

She eventually gets support from her newspaper to research and write her own story. At every one of the interviews, she expresses discomfort with what she’s doing and almost backs off. Pushed on by her photographer co-worker—and her own need to know—she continues on what has become a journalistic mission. Connors knows she is intruding into people’s lives and realizes she’s coming from a place of privilege, but ends up relating to so much of their stories that she finds her rage toward her rapist fizzling.

It’s with great care, too, that Connors treats the racial tensions that arise during her investigation. Connors talks to women of color who, in 2007 when she conducted her interviews, had never reported their rapes: “I know about rape,” one of Francis’ relatives says. “I was raped myself. Three times. But I asked for it because I was on drugs and I was prostituting.” Connors tells the woman that she didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but the woman tells her the story of how one of her rapes happened and concludes with: “And besides that […] he was a white guy.” This woman felt that nothing would be done about it, even if she did report it.

Connors also writes that in her case, she served as the “perfect witness”; she explains that her rape “isn’t [hers] at all. It’s the state’s, as in The State of Ohio v. David Francis.” The prosecutor tells her: “You’re the ideal witness,” because she is “a journalist, trained to observe details and remember them.” She adds:

I know what he really means. To him, I’m the perfect victim because I happen to fulfill just about all the requirements of a woman accusing a man of rape, going back before the Civil War. I am white, educated, and middle-class. I resisted, and I have a cut on my neck, bruises still healing on my spine, and a torn and blood-stained blouse to prove it. I immediately ran to report the rape.

Needless to say, David Francis is the perfect defendant: black, poor, and uneducated, with a criminal record.

In fact, as she finds out during her investigation, her assailant was both Black and Native American, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, starting at age 12. Connors looks at the racial disparity in prisons, at the rate of poverty in the areas of Cleveland that she visits, at the way socioeconomic status and race are interwoven, how violence and drug abuse feed into those factors as well, and how sexual assault and abusive environments are so often passed down through generations. Connors discovered fellow survivors in her rapist’s family—his sister Laura, with whom Connors is still in touch, described her mother’s boyfriend raping her in a church. His entire family, she discovers, have been survivors of one kind or another.

Connors believes that her rapist was likely raped himself. During her assault, she had a clear feeling that Francis was re-enacting something done to him. And after learning that rape was common at the juvenile detention center where Francis did many stints, she assumes that he had been abused there and during his time spent locked up as an adult.

What is most striking about Connors’ book is not its bravery—though it is brave—or its shock value, which exists. The book is valuable because Connors recognizes and conveys to readers the cyclical nature of abuse, its pathological nature, and one of its sources: in David Francis’ case, perhaps learning by example.

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