ANCHORAGE - Sexual violence against indigenous women in the U.S. has reached stunningly high rates, in part because a lack of funding for law enforcement and health care workers allows perpetrators to "rape with impunity," according to a report released Tuesday by a human rights group.
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The Amnesty International report found that American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women of other ethnic groups in the United States.
Justice can be elusive for indigenous victims who are victimized on Native lands or in remote villages because tribal jurisdiction is limited or poorly defined and public safety agencies are severely underfunded, the report said.
In Alaska, there is little or no law enforcement presence in dozens of Native communities that lie far from any road system. Most villages can be reached only by air or sometimes boat or snowmobile, and dangerous winter weather can leave crime victims marooned for days before state troopers arrive.
There is no easy way to escape. Many victims fly hundreds of miles from home to safe houses and treatment centers in the cities.
But urban areas are no safer. In Anchorage, Alaska Natives were 9.7 times more likely to be raped or sexually molested than the rest of the population, the report said.
Many are homeless or live in neighborhoods where crime is already high, can be reluctant to seek help from police, or are simply too trusting of strangers, said Denise Morris, who heads the Alaska Native Women's Sexual Assault Committee in Anchorage.
Morris and other victims' advocates spoke about the report to The Associated Press in Anchorage.
"If you come from a rural community, everyone knows everyone and people always stop to help each other out," Morris said. "But unfortunately they sometimes don't realize that if someone in an urban area stops to lend assistance they could really be looking to harm them."
The report was based on interviews with victims, health workers and law enforcement personnel in Alaska, Oklahoma and the Dakotas.
It found that for a variety of reasons, Native women often lack access to proper forensic medical exams following an assault and that law enforcement is often slow to respond. In many cases, officers routinely mishandled evidence, with the result that the crimes were never prosecuted.
"Regardless of the location, the issue is, these women are being denied justice and suffering disproportionately because of it," said Rachel Ward, an Amnesty International research director based in New York.
Jami Rozell, 25, said she was raped four years ago by an acquaintance in her hometown of Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Several months after the assault, she decided to press charges, but police had already destroyed the photos and the nurse's report from her forensic physical exam in what they called a routine department clean-up.
Rozell said she had waited until after her brother's wedding and her sister's pregnancy to press charges because a police detective had told her she had up to seven years to do so.
"I would have pressed charges from beginning if I had known the evidence would be destroyed that quickly," she said in a phone call with the AP in Anchorage. "I didn't want to just let this guy get away with it. I decided only five months later and it was all destroyed."
Rozell would like to see better training for law enforcement officials and for health workers at Native hospitals. Hastings Indian Hospital in Talequah wasn't equipped to give her the forensic physical checkup that normally follows a sexual assault, she said. She had to go to the city hospital instead.
One in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped, while the national figure for women overall is less than one in five, the report said.
The statistics can come as a surprise to those outside insular, predominantly indigenous communities like Tahlequah and Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota, where survivors told Amnesty researchers that they couldn't think of any indigenous women they knew who hadn't been abused.
"Very few people know about these figures, stats and shocking disparities," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "To be honest, I don't think we really knew and we're a human rights organization. I think it speaks volumes about the general lack of awareness among non-natives when it comes to the incredible rates of rape and sexual assault in Native communities."
The report is one of about 40 written by Amnesty International since 2004 when it launched its International Campaign on Violence against Women.
The human rights group hopes the report will convince Congress to resume funding of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, in particular a new section added in 2005 aimed at protecting indigenous women.