April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, serving as a critical opportunity to raise awareness of sexual violence in tribal communities, educate on the importance of consent and stand in support of survivors of sexual violence. Sexual violence impacts all genders and demographics, but disproportionately affects Native women who already face unique challenges and barriers to accessing support services, medical care and justice.
For many tribal nations and victim services programs, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, or SAAM, promotes awareness of sexual assault and rape with a goal of prevention for safer communities. For those who have survived sexual violence, what has happened cannot be undone or truly forgotten. But taking the journey one step at a time, as survivors are ready, and with the support survivors deserve, it is possible to heal, become stronger and feel safe once again. Together we can help Native women reclaim their bodies, their lives and safety in their communities, so all women are safe, all the time, in all circumstances.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is also an opportunity to encourage prevention through consent education to all ages. Consent is defined as giving permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something. Consent requires respect and communication. Sexual consent means each partner agrees to sexual activity and understands what they’re agreeing to.
Each April, we fully support the incredible efforts by tribal nations, tribal domestic violence and victim services programs, rape crisis centers, agencies, campuses, states and advocacy organizations to bring sexual assault awareness to the forefront and show support for victim-survivors of sexual violence. Sexual assault, rape and violence are unnatural and are attacks not only against the victim, but also their family and entire community. We call on everyone to stand with survivors of this violence and help teach and model consent in our relationships with each other for our younger generations.
Lucy Simpson (Diné)
Executive Director, NIWRC
What is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is a serious crime and widespread problem, with more than half of Native American women (56 percent) experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. While all genders experience sexual violence, and it is important not to minimize their experiences, the vast majority of victims of sexual assault are women. For that reason, we address issues of sexual violence from a woman's perspective.
As women, we know that all types of sexual violence are criminal no matter how the criminal justice system defines or responds to it. Colonizers introduced sexual violence against Native women into tribal communities, where before this violence was extremely rare, as a way to break down those communities. Prior to contact, there was no ‘excuse’ for sexual violence or rape in tribal communities, and the consequences for violating a Native woman were severe.
Sexual assault is any type of sexual activity or contact that you do not consent to. It may occur within an intimate relationship as a tactic of domestic violence. Sexual assault and sexual violence are types of rape that are rooted in power and control, a way for perpetrators to instill fear into victims. Forced sexual acts cause great distress and harm people physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
Types of Sexual Assault:
- Harassing or calling you degrading sexual names
- Fondling, grabbing or pinching the sexual parts of your body
- Constantly pressuring you to have sex when you don’t want to have sex
- Forcing you to have sex or engage in unwanted sexual activity (ex. rape, anal rape, forced masturbation or forced oral sex)
- Drugging or restricting you to where you are unable to consent to sexual activity
- Using weapons or other objects to hurt the sexual parts of your body
The trauma to one’s spirit and wellbeing can last a lifetime, particularly if safety, support and culturally grounded resources for healing aren't provided — and which we unfortunately know aren’t always readily available for Native women.
Women may not report sexual assault or seek help out of shame, embarrassment, or fear of retaliation by the person who assaulted them, but in reality, rape and sexual assault are never the victim’s fault. Collectively, we can send a strong message that we will not tolerate sexual violence in tribal communities and urge for perpetrators to be held accountable. Women are sacred, and supporting survivors of sexual assault is central to ending violence against Native women.
What is Consent?
Consent is permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something. Consent is an important concept for children to learn about from an early age and is an important practice for us to remember as adults. Learning and understanding what consent is can lead to better relationships with family, friends, peers and, eventually romantic partners.
In an intimate relationship, consent involves knowing and respecting your partner’s boundaries as well as defining your own boundaries for what you are comfortable with. Individually, we should all have the ability to choose whether we engage in any type of touching, hugging, talking, kissing, or sexual activity. The best way to give and receive consent is with verbally by saying yes or no. True consent is given freely — not pressured, or achieved through threat, intimidation, fear or force. Consent can be taken back any time.
Each of us has the right to leave any situation we don’t feel comfortable in, and we should respect when a partner or anyone else wants to do the same. When we talk about being good relatives to each other, we need to understand that everyone has the ability to choose who they would like to interact with, romantically/intimately or not.
How Can I Get Involved?
NIWRC strongly encourages everyone to join in the national organizing efforts to end sexual assault. During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, encourage your community members, tribal leaders, community and faith-based organizations, and families to join together to raise awareness about sexual assault and the importance of consent in our relationships.
Given the current COVID-19 situation, we must explore new ways to organize with respect to social distancing and stay-at-home orders. With this in mind, taking action may look like:
- organizing a virtual awareness walk or talking circle
- sharing facts and resources on sexual violence on social media
- encouraging tribal leaders to sign a proclamation for Sexual Assault Awareness Month
- submitting an op-ed letter to your tribe’s newspaper, or
- wearing teal and sharing your photos on social media throughout the month of April in support of survivors using #StandWithSurvivors.
- Download NIWRC sexual assault awareness postcards for social media.
- Inspire community-wide action using NIWRC’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month general proclamation template.
- Download NIWRC’s fact sheets on sexual violence against Native women and violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women and men.
- Call the StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483) if you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or sexually abused.
- Read “Raping Indian Country” paper by Sarah Deer and Elizabeth Ann Kronk Warner.
- Explore publications addressing law and policy issues related to sexual assault in Indian Country by the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.
- Read “The Beginning and End of Rape, Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” by Sarah Deer.
- Watch ‘A Broken Trust: Sexual Assault and Justice on Tribal Lands’ documentary by Newsy.
- Explore consent education resource page by the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
- Learn about sexual assault advocacy resources and the history of SAAM from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
About the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Inc. (NIWRC) is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to restoring the sovereignty of Native nations and safeguarding Native women and their children. NIWRC supports culturally grounded, grassroots advocacy and provides national leadership to ending gender-based violence in indigenous communities through the development of educational materials and programs, direct technical assistance and the development of local and national policy that builds the capacity of Indigenous communities and strengthens the exercise of tribal sovereignty. www.niwrc.org