The Senate unanimously passed legislation that would make funding for survivors of gender-based violence more inclusive of communities that need it most.
The bill, spearheaded by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, would amend the Violence Against Women Act, which, in part, increased funding for domestic violence and sexual assault services. While services allocated to specifically help Native Hawaiian survivors of gender-based violence were previously inadvertently excluded from that funding, the legislation would rectify that.
“It happens to native groups. There is a certain invisibility … their issues are not necessarily focused on,” Hirono said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. “We do need to get this bill passed on the House side, but I’m glad the language change has been made through this bill in the Senate.”
Hirono said the issue is particularly urgent, citing statistics that show roughly two-thirds of sex trafficking victims in Hawaii are Native Hawaiian. As it stood, the legislation allocated money for native women but not, specifically, Native Hawaiian women due to language and drafting errors. It was an issue Hirono said she first discovered in 2016, when a Native Hawaiian group ran into difficulties applying for a grant. At the time, she had written a letter to the Justice Department seeking clarification on the issue.
The most recent legislation comes after Hirono brought up the disparity once again in August, during a Judiciary Committee Hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray. Shortly afterward, several Native Hawaiian organizations, including Native Hawaiian Education Council and family and social services nonprofit Partners In Development, signed a joint letter calling on Hirono to help pass a legislative fix.
“We’re very happy that we can finally begin to do good work in our communities through the VAWA act and grateful for Sen. Hirono for pushing it,” Shawn Kanaʻiaupuni, president of Partners In Development, said. “We can start to address some of these disparities that exist in our community for Native Hawaiian people.”
Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of Hawai'i State Commission on the Status of Women, likened the measure to playing “catch-up.”
“Policies here are not based on the preservation of Native Hawaiians just culturally or literally,” said Jabola-Carolus, who also chairs the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls task force in Hawaii. “The people who suffer the worst of that are Native Hawaiian women," she added.
While many factors have contributed to the disproportionate violence against Native Hawaiian women, Jabola-Carolus said much of it can be traced back to the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.
“The overutilization of Native Hawaiians to meet sex buyer demand may be directly linked to structural economic coercion and vulnerabilities connected to land dispossession, exposure to sexual violence, hypersexualization, incarceration, cultural dislocation, intergenerational trauma, mental and emotional distress, racism, poverty, and going inequities,” a 2020 joint report released by the commission, said.
Barriers to addressing violence against Native Hawaiian women can also be traced back to American colonization, Kanaʻiaupuni said.
“Native Hawaiians are also not always recognized as an indigenous people in our country — all those are a challenge and play out in these statistics,” she said. “The important thing is to allow our community to find ways to identify the issues that are problematic and be able to mobilize so that we can bring positive solutions to our people. We know how to do it. We just need more resources.”
Hirono said going forward, she plans on working with the FBI and task force to mitigate sex trafficking and other gender-based violence in the community. She also called on fellow lawmakers and others to learn about the subject.
“There’s not enough awareness that this kind of sex trafficking is happening in Hawaii,” Hirono said. “And of course the majority of trafficked people are Native Hawaiian women and children. With more known on the subject, the more we’re going to be able to prevent it and prosecute those responsible.”