Recognizing the impact of climate change on Indigenous survivors of domestic violence
By Azuree Bowman and Dr. Lee Ann De Reus
Women leaders and activists took to the stage and streets in Glasgow at the recent COP26 Summit to highlight the devastating effects of climate change on women and girls around the world. While the link between environmental pressures and gender-based violence is often addressed in global forums, it is noticeably absent from such discussions in the U.S. This omission has dire implications for our nation’s Indigenous communities who are on the frontlines of severe climate events and uniquely susceptible to climate stressors.
When extreme weather such as drought, hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes strike, domestic violence spikes. The resulting food scarcity, job loss, lack of services, and housing insecurity are known precursors to abuse. In vulnerable communities where resources are already stretched, climate-related disasters exacerbate violence.
While roughly 36% of women in the United States experience physical violence by an intimate partner, Indigenous women experience violence at higher rates than any other racial group. According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, 55.5% of American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. Further, a startling 96% of the women who reported sexual violence were attacked by at least one non-Indian perpetrator. The steady increase of disasters caused by global heating necessitate immediate action to stem further abuse.
President Biden, who has long been an ally in efforts to advance safety and security for domestic survivors, recently acknowledged “the important roles” of various stakeholders “in helping to prevent and address domestic violence and create a culture that refuses to tolerate abuse,” such as providing safeguards to Native American survivors. To truly advance safety and security for survivors, however, the Biden administration must center those impacted and acknowledge the intersection of climate change and domestic violence.
In vulnerable communities where resources are already stretched, climate-related disasters exacerbate violence.
In 2018, FEMA released the Tribal Mitigation Planning Handbook outlining how Tribes can prepare for climate-related disasters. Absent from this preparedness guide were support services for domestic violence survivors. Indigenous communities are less likely to have the information needed to satisfy FEMA’s criteria, thus delaying resources survivors desperately need to access safety. The destruction that ravages communities after climate-related disasters also wipes out services, such as domestic violence shelters. According to a 2020 report by the National Workgroup on Safe Housing for American Indian and Alaska Native Survivors of Gender-Based Violence, ensuring safe, affordable housing “is one of the most pressing concerns for American Indian and Alaska Native survivors of gender-based violence.”
The White House hosted Tribal Leaders this month for the Tribal Nations Summit, which culminated in President Biden’s Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People. While this historic action is laudable, it still misses the connection to climate change as a precursor to violence.
To mitigate the outsized risk of the intersection between climate change and domestic violence, Indigenous peoples’ experiences, needs and perspectives must be included in policy planning and implementation to address the continued burden for women of climate change and domestic violence.
Azuree Bowman is a Student Attorney in the Legislation and Civil Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. The Clinic provides legislative lawyering services to DV LEAF, an initiative of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP) that raises awareness on how climate change affects domestic violence in survivors in vulnerable communities.
Dr. Lee Ann De Reus is the Executive Director of DV LEAP, a national nonprofit based in Washington, with a mission to make the law work for survivors of domestic violence.