North American Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls Opening Session

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
The White House
Washington, DC
October 14, 2016

As prepared

Thank you, Valerie, for that introduction, and for your tremendous leadership and your vision in setting up the Council. I

I’d also like to recognize the groups that work so tirelessly on behalf of indigenous women and girls here in the United States. Thanks in large part to their efforts, tribal courts are now able to investigate and prosecute non-Native men who abuse Native women on Native land, and I think that’s an incredibly important step. We should all be very grateful for the incredible persistence on their part. I’m told that several groups are participating in this morning’s discussion via live stream, and I’m delighted that they will be a key part of our efforts going forward.

In this job, I’ve traveled to dozens of countries, where I’ve learn about women’s issues and talked about how the U.S. government can support progress on gender equality. The challenges women face vary by country, from laws that single out women from fully participating in the economy, to difficult security situations that make it hard for girls to go to school, to hostile environments for civil society organizations working on behalf of women.

But there is one issue that every single country struggles with, and that’s gender-based violence. Throughout their lives, women and girls around the world are vulnerable to various forms of violence. Parents choose infanticide over the possibility of having a daughter. Girls undergo harmful practices like female genital mutilation and cutting or early and forced marriage. Students face sexual harassment or rape. Girlfriends and wives suffer from domestic violence. And elderly women and widows are sometimes abused, isolated, and cast away from their communities. I’ve seen all of this first hand.

All these forms of violence add up to one disturbing statistic, which is that one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime. It’s a statistic we say so many times, but when you stop and think about it, it’s truly a staggering number.

But even more disturbing is the fact that, for indigenous women and girls, these numbers are even higher. Here in the United States, indigenous women face the highest rates of physical and sexual assault—higher than any other group in the U.S. In Canada, indigenous women are seven times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women. In Mexico, these communities are similarly at higher risk for gender-based violence.

North America is not alone in this problem. On almost every continent— from the Q’eqchi’ living in Guatemala, to the Berbers in north Africa, to the Gurung women in Nepal—women and girls in ingenious communities are often more vulnerable to violence. That abuse is compounded by systems that make it difficult for survivors to access the care they need, or the justice they deserve.

This is truly a global problem that deserves and requires global attention. But, as neighbors who share both borders and a common set of values, our countries also share responsibility, particularly when it comes to gender-based violence in these communities.

When President Obama, Prime Minister Trudeau, and President Peña Nieto met in June for the North American Leaders Summit, they recognized this challenge —and committed to take action. That leadership makes a difference. Leadership matters in all of these contexts, so I applaud your governments for understanding the importance of this.

That’s why we’re here today—to explore the range of issues that we can address together: from increasing access to justice, social services, and health systems, to tackling human trafficking, to developing services for victims that are sensitive to their needs.

It’s clear that these issues require a coordinated, comprehensive approach—because they are influenced by a number of factors. For example, on an international level, we’ve heard that access to justice can be hindered when information isn’t easily shared between law enforcement communities. At a regional level, an increase in extractive industries can sometimes lead to increases in crime that affect indigenous communities. Both of these issues can lead to upticks in gender-based violence.

Clearly, history plays a role as well. In the United States, violence against indigenous communities stains many pages of our history. Understanding that history, understanding the legacy of trauma and tension it has left behind, is an important part of our conversation today.

These are complex issues. But I have no doubt that, when our governments come together, in partnership with each other and with indigenous communities, we can both better prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. We can hold perpetrators accountable, and ultimately, we can advance the rights of women and girls to lead lives free of violence.

The foundation for our effort is strong. Through the North American Leaders’ Summit, our countries work together on everything from trade to climate to girls’ education. Through the Equal Futures Partnership, our countries have joined more than 30 others working to give women equal opportunity to work, to lead, and to achieve. And through this forum today, we are able to deepen our partnerships, strengthen our alliance, and improve our efforts through trilateral cooperation.

This is a theme I see every day across the spectrum of issues in foreign policy. Coordination and collaboration may not make for great headlines, but they are key to progress on almost any issue, particularly ones like gender-based violence. And that’s because we have so much to learn from each other.

In Mexico, more indigenous girls are staying in school thanks to programs that provide financial support to families. In Canada, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been given the resources and support needed to study this issue in depth. And in the United States, the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act has provided Tribal communities with both the authority and the resources they need to address violence in their communities.

These initiatives reflect the individual responsibility our countries have taken on this issue. Today, we’re coming together to share that responsibility, and take another step forward—this time, together. Our meeting makes clear that we recognize the importance of the issue—that it isn’t invisible and it will not be ignored. That we’re interested in learning from each other’s efforts. And we’re committed to working in partnership to combat gender-based violence.

The United States is a proud supporter of girls and women, both here at home and abroad. We believe in their potential, and in their right to fully contribute to their societies. We’re invested in their futures, knowing that it’s a future we all share.

We’re grateful to Canada and Mexico for joining us in that investment. And we look forward to making progress together, in partnership with each other, and with indigenous communities. Thank you again for being here. I’m looking forward to today’s discussion.