An Update on Federal Policies to End Gender-Based Violence

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Photo: Christiane Cardoza
Christiane Cardoza – Photo: Courtesy
Photo: Paula Julian
Paula Julian – Photo: Courtesy

By Christiane Cardoza and Paula Julian

Recent reports demonstrate that Native Hawaiians are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence, including sex trafficking, intimate partner violence, and related issues.

The work to end these disparities and to protect Native Hawaiian families from this violence through federal policy is underway, and the progress we see today results from the previous commitment of survivors, Native grassroots leaders, and Native leaders in the halls of Congress.

Although the pandemic has exacerbated domestic and sexual violence challenges across the United States, it has also yielded an opportunity to focus on decreasing gender-based violence in Native communities. Collaboration between survivors, advocacy and community organizations, local and state governments, and the federal government is possible across geographies thanks to our increased reliance on remote work.

The work to end gender-based violence continues across all American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities.

The general framework that exists today is the direct result of the early grassroots work and ongoing maturation of the grassroots to end gender-based violence in Native communities. Community organizing was in full swing during the 1970s as seen in the opening of women’s shelters across the country. Grassroots advocates worked to ensure survival of Native women and children.

These advocates recognized that colonization was the seed that led to continued violence and historical trauma disproportionately affecting Native nations and communities.

Birthed from this grassroots movement is the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC). NIWRC is a Native-led nonprofit organization working to end violence against American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian women. NIWRC was founded in 2010 to serve as the National Indian Resource Center Addressing Domestic Violence and Safety for Indian Women, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children & Families under the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA).

NIWRC is a leader in addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Central to NIWRC’s advocacy is its partnerships connecting grassroots advocates with tribal leadership to organize around law and policy changes that remove systemic barriers related to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, sex trafficking, and missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Looking back on the history of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Native grassroots organizing efforts have successfully strengthened provisions to respond to the systemic barriers faced by tribes and Native women.

VAWA was first passed in 1994. With each subsequent reauthorization in 2000, 2005, and 2013, and in response to the grassroots organizing of survivors, tribes, and Native organizations, Congress increased the provisions focused on addressing this issue in Native communities.

In 2010, with the reauthorization of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), Senators Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye successfully included a provision authorizing funds for state resource centers to reduce disparities in Native communities, such as a Native Hawaiian Domestic Violence Resource Center. NIWRC and Native advocates have been hard at work educating policymakers about the important role such a center – and additional provisions for studies and new programs – can play as catalysts for social change for Native Hawaiian women.

Ten years ago, and three years before the most recent VAWA reauthorization, Akaka – the first and only Native Hawaiian Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – held a congressional oversight hearing entitled “Native Women: Protecting, Shielding, and Safeguarding Our Sisters, Mothers, and Daughters.” The hearing found, among other things, that despite improvements in VAWA, Native women continue to face gender-based violence at unacceptable rates and resources remain limited in Native communities.

Akaka shared, “For Native peoples, women are sacred. They bring life and nurture us. They mālama, in Hawaiian, they care for our peoples, and we must mālama them.” His leadership in the 112th Congress set the foundation for the most recent 2013 VAWA reauthorization.

While the 2013 VAWA reauthorization addressed glaring jurisdictional issues for Native communities, programs directly benefiting Native Hawaiians remained limited. In May 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the VAWA Reauthorization Act of 2021 and included programs benefiting Native Hawaiians proposed by Hawai‘i’s congressional delegation.

The U.S. Senate continues to work on its version of the VAWA Reauthorization Act, and further legislative action is projected in the 117th Congress. Ending gender-based violence and its disproportionate effect on the Native Hawaiian community supports Native Hawaiian ‘ohana and addresses vulnerabilities created by historical trauma.

Native advocates and allies continue to monitor this legislation closely in the hopes that it will create and improve programs serving all Native communities, including American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities.


Paula Julian is the Senior Policy Specialist at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.

Christiane Cardoza is the Interim Washington D.C. Bureau Chief and Federal Public Policy Advocate in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Washington D.C. Bureau.