Our Lost Indigenous Women

A protest, with placards displaying the faces and information of missing women
Source: Obert Madondo Via: Flikr/cc

The Problem

Indigenous women face overwhelming rates of violent crime, more than twice the amount of their non-Indigenous counterparts in the United States and 3.5 times in Canada. A 2016 study published by the National Institute of Justice revealed that approximately 84.3% of American Indigenous women have experienced violence against them in their lifetime and 56% of these women would become victims of sexual violence as well. In Canada, only 53% of Indigenous women’s homicides have been solved; drastically less than Canada’s national solve rate of 84%. That statistic becomes even more damning when we take into account that Indigenous females only make up 4% of Canada’s population, yet account for nearly one quarter of all homicide victims in Canada. For decades, Indigenous leaders, tribal governments and human rights organizations alike have called for national reviews in both Canada and the United States into the treatment of cases regarding Indigenous women. A publication from the US Department of Justice states that Indigenous female victims in the United States are far more likely to need services that aid survivors of such violence, but are the least likely group to have access to these services. The majority of Native American women will face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and more than a third will be unable to access necessary services after the event due to drastic disparities in access to healthcare and treatment by law enforcement. With each new set of data we have re-confirmed the existence of a plight sweeping through native communities, robbing women within them of their security, safety, and visibility. 

Marchers holding a banner that says "No more stolen sisters"
Source: Yahoo Images

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW)

In recent years, social media pushes have been made to raise attention for what is now known as “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”, a simple catchphrase encompassing decades of neglect from all channels that is now spearheading a movement for justice. This hashtag and social media campaign generates hundreds of thousands of interactions and impressions on social media every day, and brings attention to the individual stories of missing indigenous women or families of women lost to homicides that are still unsolved. However, indigenous women rarely get the national media attention that white women experience when they go missing; and when every minute and resource makes an empirical difference in the likelihood of that woman being found alive. A prior article from the Institute of Human Rights speaks specifically about the recent Gabby Petito case, and the disproportionate response of the American public for missing white women in comparison to women of color and indigenous women here. These drastically different responses only amplify the vulnerability of indigenous women.

It is horrific to think about a situation in which no one will come looking for you if you go missing. That nightmare has become an internalized reality in so many indigenous communities, where young women are being raised with impressive levels of advocacy for their missing sisters, but are witnessing first hand how much of a struggle that advocacy is. Social media is beginning to catch up to decades of research that has been waiting for a time like now, where the general public may be ready to listen and push for change. The Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has tirelessly collected data on unsolved homicides in the United States to apply pressure on law enforcement in communities with disproportionately high unsolved homicide rates, and put a spotlight on communities that fail to report important information to federal databases. The Indigenous community is heavily reflected in both of those categories.

A broken chain of command and lack of communication is often cited for why so few of these reported cases are ever investigated, as local, state and federal law enforcement agencies struggle to find a balance of working with native land and sovereign tribes through the reporting process. Many violent crimes against indigenous women occur on sovereign native land, however, 96% of the perpetrators are non-indigenous. This causes major confusion as tribal governments are unable to prosecute non-indigenous persons, and most standard law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on native land. This complicated mess of jurisdiction and authority confuses law enforcement, tribal governments, and victims alike. 

Unfortunately, law enforcement has repeatedly made glaring errors that are impossible to ignore; tribal organizations have found that the United States National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016, but the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database shows that only 116 of those 5,712 cases were never logged. Essentially, this information means that only 2% of all cases of missing indigenous women were properly reported. This cannot be ignored; many families, friends and loved ones are left wondering why our government has forgotten and neglected their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters. While the answer may not always be clear, movements like #MMIW are bringing this conversation to the forefront of politics and media. In order to provide justice for these women, we must demand increased preventative and investigative efforts to protect these women when they need it the most.

An infographic displaying data on missing indigenous women
Source: Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG VIA: Yahoo Images

Truths of Targeting

The vast majority of homicides of indigenous females go unsolved for years, and even the solved cases display how this systemic neglect has been repeatedly exploited. As determined by the FBI, “vulnerability” is a key factor in a killer’s process of victim selection; a category most indigenous women have been forced into by countless factors beyond their control. Prolific serial killers like Robert Pickton (Canada) and Robert Hansen (United States) specifically targeted indigenous women and sex workers during their killing sprees, and doing so allowed them to murder dozens of women completely undetected by law enforcement for decades. More than half of Pickton’s victims were thought to be aboriginal women, though many were never identified, and Hansen’s victims were often young indigenous women who had turned to survival sex work out of financial desperation. While describing research confirming how killers have manipulated vulnerabilities to their benefit, Co-director of MAP and criminologist Michael Arntfield determined that “Serial killers prey on marginalized populations, and indigenous women make up a disproportionate number in the victim pool”.

Sign stating "You are not forgotten" at a march for missing indigenous women
Source: Pressbooks Open Library Via: Yahoo Images

How to Help

There are many exceptional campaigns, research organizations and nonprofits to get involved that are currently on the forefront of the fight to end violence against indigenous women. If you wish to learn more about the topic, you can explore other Institute of Human Rights articles promoting Indigenous rights here, or click here to find an excellent resource sheet with educational sources and ways to get involved with MMIW. There are countless petitions for reform in both the US and Canada as well; this petition calls for the passing of Savanna’s Act, which will require the Department of Justice to update their missing persons database to better help identify missing and murdered Indigenous women and prevent further discrepancies in reported cases. This petition is a plea to the US Senate, calling for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to be re-authorized and receive greater funding as VAWA increases abilities for tribal nations to prosecute non-native offenders as well as providing resources for responses from law enforcement on all levels when cases of violent crimes or missing women are reported. The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women offers ways to donate, volunteer, attend community training, and other incredible opportunities to get involved in the movement. The Sovereign Bodies Institute utilizes donations to collect culturally-informed research on gender and sexual violence against indigenous peoples.

The only way to protect these women is to take drastic steps towards change. We can no longer ignore, deny or neglect the truths of everything both systemic and societal that has consistently failed the indigenous community, and the women within it. Please research, donate, volunteer, and find a way to become an advocate for the missing and murdered. We can have no more stolen sisters.

Bhutan: Persecution in Paradise

Bhutanese Landscape
Bhutanese Landscape. Source: Pxfuel

 Real Life Shangri-La

Bhutan is often referred to as an idyllic Himalayan nation, a land of peace and prosperity, happiness, and beauty. After visiting Bhutan in 2017, I was even more fascinated, and truly began to understand why the small, neutral country has been dubbed a “real-life Shangri-La”. It is the only nation in the world to measure annual success by Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. It is also the only country to have a carbon-negative footprint, with extraordinary levels of hydropower and renewable energy production and a zero-tolerance policy for industrial development. Bhutan is rapidly decreasing poverty rates and increasing the middle-class population. Government programs have made education and trade school accessible to most citizens who desire it. Bhutan has managed to remain neutral for hundreds of years with a minimal military presence despite being nestled between two conflicting superpowers, India and China. Citizens of Bhutan enjoy the state’s extensive social welfare programs and are enamored with the royal family that abdicated power to allow a peaceful transition to a democratic system.

In short, the nation seems like a true paradise, where culture and tradition are preserved with love and care, where nature is respected and upheld, and where one can pursue life to the fullest in a land of prosperity and opportunity. When I had the opportunity to travel through Bhutan, I was stunned by the gorgeous landscape, nation, and culture. I was welcomed with clearer air than I thought possible, a colorful landscape filled with trees and prayer flags, and adorable buildings constructed in traditional Bhutanese fashion. The people were so happy, and talked passionately about their country, royal family, and culture. There is a strong sense of nationalistic pride, and from everything Bhutan boasts, it seemed to be entirely deserved. Our guide taught us about local customs, Bhutanese Buddhism, traditional dress and building style, and masterfully escorted us through the most beautiful aspects of Bhutan and its culture. 

It was only after leaving that I learned of human rights abuses Bhutan so carefully hides from tourists. Our state-sanctioned tour guide was an instrument in how this flawless reputation has been skillfully crafted, and the execution was so perfect that nothing felt staged while I was there. I enjoyed the country within an intricate veil of ignorance, unaware of the atrocities that no one is allowed to see.

Bhutanese children in traditional attire, leaning over a balcony
Bhutanese children. Source: World Bank Photo Collection

Violations Exposed

Bhutan may appear to be a nation without error, but the country has perpetrated major human rights violations since the 1980s. For four decades, the United Nations, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have consistently criticized and exposed Bhutan’s human rights violations. The nation is limited by strict libel laws and a culture that is unwilling to speak negatively on the king or his policies. While free speech is protected under Bhutan’s constitution, it is rarely practiced and this self-censorship is coupled with a flawed judicial system that harshly punishes those found to be committing the dangerously broad charge of libel. In 2016, a Bhutanese reporter faced libel fines of up to 10 years salary for critiquing a prominent businessman on Facebook. With penalties like this, it is no wonder that citizens of Bhutan do not dare criticize the crown, even though free speech is allegedly protected. Bhutan has been on a Human Rights Watch list since the 80s due to prolific persecution of ethnic minorities. While Bhutan has received credit for its positive changes since transitioning into a democracy in 2008, they still have a long way to go before they can be considered a free nation.

Bhutanese refugees sitting outside
Bhutanese refugees. Source: Creative Commons

Ethnic Cleansing Pre-Democracy

The horrific treatment of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan is the most atrocious human rights violation known to be committed by the Bhutanese government. The Lhotshampa people are Bhutanese residents with Nepali ethnic backgrounds, who have lived in Bhutan for generations but still speak a separate dialect and have a differing culture from the majority in Bhutan. In order to understand the current plight of Nepali migrants in Bhutan, we must understand a little bit of the once-neighboring nation, Sikkim. Sikkim was once an established monarchical state with most of its population being of Mongolian/Tibetan descent as Sikkimese, just like the ethnic Bhutanese. However, Sikkim faced a mass migration of ethnic Nepalis (of Hindu and Indo-Aryan descent) that caused the people of Sikkim to become a minority in their own nation. Sikkim fell as an independent state and was annexed by India in the 1950s, and the leaders of Bhutan have used the fall of Sikkim as a fear-inspiring example ever since. It is this nationalism and fear of losing sovereignty to one of the superpower neighbor states that has created such a widely supported systemic oppression of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan.

Bhutan faced its greatest human rights violations in the 1990s, as strong nationalism and resentment towards the Lhotshampa people came to a boiling point. The refugees crossed the border with tales of an ethnic cleansing occurring in Bhutan, stating they were given mere days to sell their homes and were marched from rural villages to Nepali refugee camps. The government’s forces accompanied the refugees across the border with loaded guns and photographers, and according to a Lhotshampa teen interviewed by the Human Rights Watch, “[They] told me to smile…He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave”.  It is estimated that the total number of refugees produced in the 1990s was just above 100,000, which is absolutely astounding when we look at Bhutan’s current national population of 780,000. While Bhutan is often portrayed as a modern “Shangri-La”, the seemingly idyllic Himalayan country created more refugees per capita  than any other nation in the world in our recent history. Of those 100,000 refugees, 85% have now been rehoused in the United States.

 Bhutanese man with child
Bhutanese man with child. Source: Creative Commons

Democratic Safeguards Fail

Despite the nation peacefully transitioning towards a democratic state in 2008, the new government has continued the systematic harassment of the minority group, even increasing certain anti-Lhotshampa policies. While the Lhotshampa are no longer persecuted as openly as they were in the early 1990s, they still face significant discrimination within the nation their families have called home for generations. Out of countless treaties currently in existence to protect and defend human rights, Bhutan has only signed two. Bhutan signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990, and many within the international community argue that Bhutan has violated the convention due to the large population of children within the persecuted Lhotshampa refugees.

Perhaps the most recent evidence proving such discrimination came with Bhutan’s new constitution in 2008, when Lhotshampa people discovered their citizenship was up for debate, and access to passports and documentation became determined by financial, marriage, or literacy status, which is very reminiscent of the second-class citizenship African Americans faced in the United States. Some of the limitations imposed upon Lhotshampas with these targeted passport systems are the inability to travel internationally, which is a blatant violation of both the right to Freedom from Discrimination and the Right to Movement established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the brilliantly cruel aspect of the passport stipulations is that while Lhotshampa people may freely leave the country, it is extremely unlikely that they will be allowed to return. For many, a trip to visit neighboring India or Nepal is the termination of calling Bhutan their home. Essentially, the Bhutanese government made it abundantly clear that Lhotshampas are not welcome in Bhutan. 

In addition, while there is no clear law preventing Lhotshampas from purchasing property or moving freely within Bhutan itself, it is extremely unlikely in practice that Lhotshampas will be able to secure property or livelihoods outside of specific regions that have become socially designated for them. Bordering nations like Nepal continue to host new refugees fleeing a land many consider to be peaceful, sacred, and free of worldly troubles. Lhotshampas have continued to cross the Nepali border to refugee camps since 2008 purely out of desperation from lack of work or freedoms in Bhutan. Websites like these provide some much needed insight into the current plight of the Lhotshampas, as well as what life is like for those still awaiting rehousing inside of their temporary refugee camps. 

Refugees outside of a small hut
Refugees outside of a hut. Source: United Nations

How to Help

In order for change to be made, Bhutan needs continual pushes from the outside world. By spreading the true story of the Lhotshampa people and looking for ways to get involved, you are directly contributing to decades old efforts to ease the horrors they face. Creating action on any level is an excellent way to assist the Lhotshampa people and refugees like them. If you would like to donate or volunteer to assist Lhotshampa refugees, there are countless local and international efforts that will put anything you can give to great use. Reputable non-profits like Sewa USA use funds to provide necessities, transportation and employment help for Bhutanese refugees in the United States, and the World Food Programme uses donations to provide food and resources to Lhotshampas still displaced in refugee camps. Ultimately, resource-based aid is an excellent way to assist those who have been cruelly displaced and discriminated against, but only international pressure for domestic changes within Bhutan will be able to stop the persecution and prevent any more Lhotshampas from becoming refugees.