Ms. Dhu's tragic death in government custody shines a spotlight on yet another discriminatory and seriously flawed national law and accountability system with respect to indigenous peoples. This case makes clear that too often the Australian legal system, like many legal systems around the world, not only does not protect indigenous women, but actually threatens their safety, lives, and human rights.

Indigenous women’s human rights include the right to be safe and live free from violence and discrimination. Though violence against women and girls is recognized as one of the most pervasive human rights violations worldwide, international experts have found the situation of indigenous women to be especially dire. Indigenous women often experience multiple forms of discrimination that make them more vulnerable to other forms of violence. As a result, as indigenous women, we suffer violence, we are murdered, and we disappear at higher rates than any other group of women. Yet, indigenous women are entitled to enjoy the same fundamental freedoms, the same human rights, as all other people.

Ten years ago, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration affirms the rights of indigenous peoples and is a human rights benchmark for all countries. Article 22 of the Declaration calls on countries to ensure that “indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.” The Declaration also affirms indigenous peoples’ rights without discrimination to access social and health services, just and fair procedures for resolving conflicts with states and other parties, and effective remedies for infringements of their individual rights. (Arts. 24(1), 40).

Violence against indigenous women is a human rights violation. It is a tragedy whenever and wherever it occurs. It is not acceptable that indigenous women continue to endure extreme rates of rape, assault, and murder, and corresponding lower rates of law enforcement, prosecution, and punishment of their abusers, just because they are indigenous. Countries must meet their obligations under international human rights law, and they must ensure meaningful access to justice and protection for all women everywhere including the most vulnerable—indigenous women. 


Jana Walker Cherokee/Loyal Shawnee/Delaware, is a senior attorney for the Indian Law Resource Center, a nonprofit law and advocacy organization in Helena, Montana that provides assistance to Indian nations and other indigenous peoples who are working to protect their human rights, lands, resources, environment, and cultural heritage. She is the director of the Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project, which works to end violence against indigenous women and girls.