Senate passes bill to include survivors of sexual violence by Native Hawaiians in funding

The Senate unanimously passed legislation that would make funding for survivors of gender-based violence more inclusive for the communities that need it most.

The bill, led by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, would amend the Violence Against Women Act, which in part increases funding for domestic violence and sexual assault services. While services designed specifically to assist survivors of Indigenous Hawaiian gender-based violence were previously inadvertently excluded from this funding, the legislation would correct that.

“It happens to native groups. There’s a certain invisibility … their problems aren’t necessarily the focus,” Hirono said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. “We need to get this bill through on the House side, but I’m glad the language change was made by this bill in the Senate.”

Hirono said the issue was particularly urgent, citing statistics showing about two-thirds of sex trafficking victims in Hawaii are native Hawaiians. In its current form, the law provided funds for native women, but not specifically for native Hawaiian women due to language and drafting errors. It was an issue that Hirono said she first discovered in 2016, when a group of Hawaiian indigenous people were struggling to apply for a scholarship. At the time, she had written a letter to the Justice Department to clarify the matter.

The latest legislation comes after Hirono raised inequality again in August during a Judiciary Committee hearing with FBI Director Christopher Wray. Shortly thereafter, several Native Hawaiian organizations, including the Native Hawaiian Education Council and family and social services nonprofit Partners In Development, signed a joint letter asking Hirono to help pass a law change.

“We are very excited that the VAWA Act is finally allowing us to begin doing good work in our communities and grateful to Sen. Hirono for driving it forward,” said Shawn Kana’iaupuni, President of Partners In Development. “We can start by addressing some of these differences that exist in our Hawaiian Native community.”

Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women, likened the measure to a “catch-up”.

“Policy here isn’t just culturally or literally based on the preservation of Native Hawaiians,” said Jabola-Carolus, who also leads the Hawaii Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. “The people who suffer the most 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 attributed to the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.

“The overexploitation of Native Hawaiians to meet sex-buying demands may be directly linked to structural economic imperatives and vulnerabilities associated with land confiscation, exposure to sexual violence, hypersexualization, incarceration, cultural dislocation, intergenerational trauma, mental and emotional distress , Racism, Poverty, and Progressing Injustices,” says a 2020 joint report published by the Commission.

Obstacles to addressing violence against native Hawaiian women can also be traced to American colonization, Kanaʻiaupuni said.

“Indigenous Hawaiians aren’t always recognized as Native Americans in our country either — all of that is challenging and plays out in these statistics,” she said. “The most important thing is to enable our community to find ways to identify the problematic issues and mobilize so that we can provide positive solutions to our people. We know how to do it. We just need more resources.”

Hirono said that for the future she plans to work with the FBI and the task force to curb sex trafficking and other gender-based violence in the community. She also urged other lawmakers and others to educate themselves on the issue.

“There isn’t enough awareness that this type of sex trafficking is happening in Hawaii,” Hirono said. “And of course, the majority of human trafficking victims are native Hawaiian women and children. The more that is known about the issue, the better we can prevent it and prosecute those responsible.”