Advocates for survivors of domestic violence in New Mexico worry that as the COVID-19 pandemic deepens, Native women facing violence at home are scared to go to shelters, where they may face a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Indigenous women experience violence at a disproportionate rate compared to women overall, said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

“Right now they (survivors and/or victims) are silent because they are dealing with other deep insecurities such as food, water, technology,” she said. “The pandemic has thrown into focus the systematic gaps our communities and survivors live with daily.”

Domestic violence and other forms of violence against Native women are so much easier to ignore with the pandemic going on, and stay-at-home orders requiring them to be around their perpetrators, Charley said.

According to state data released Tuesday, Native people make up 50 percent of the total amount of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico, while they only make up 11 percent of the state’s population.

“What we have going on in the Four Corners area in tribal communities is on par with what’s going on in New York City and these major hot spots in the country,” Charley said.

The Coalition, one of 19 tribal coalitions across the U.S., is a member-based organization with the mission to stop violence against Native women and has about 50 members that include representation from every tribe across the Four Corners area: New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

The Coalition was part of a panel discussion held April 22 via Facebook Live by Albuquerque bar Sister and nonprofit Dukes Up.

Across the state, but especially in indigenous communities, the virus and its economic fallout is limiting access to food, health care, lack of civil rights, risking livelihood if the economy opens back up, overwhelming the hospitals, and increasing violence in households.

Charley expressed the coalition’s pressing concerns for the community involving COVID-19 is that violence is still happening.

She said what the coalition is finding out and seeing with reports that are coming out, is violence in homes and intimate partners are less important than the pandemic.

In other words, violence is becoming secondary to the pandemic, even while there are increases in hotline and 911 callers, like in Albuquerque, for example, where there was a 78 percent increase in the past few weeks, according to the Albuquerque Police Department.

However, she said she knows that survivors and victims are not leaving their homes.

She said there are no increases in women staying in the shelters nor have the shelters reached their capacities throughout the state.

The Coalition also has members staying in tribal and non-tribal shelters across five states: New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Texas.

Area tribal and non-tribal shelters include: Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council Peacekeepers Domestic Violence Program in Ohkay Owingeh; Navajo Nation Strengthening Families Program in Window Rock, Ariz.; Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center in Moab, Utah; Victim Support Services in Towoac, Colo.; and Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo Social Services, El Paso, Texas.

Legal Director for The Center on Law and Poverty Sovereign Hager said the system does not take care of everyone, which puts everyone at risk.

Hager said it is more clear now that people from impacted communities are being hit with unemployment or are left out of federal relief. And those who do not have access to unemployment, or are facing health disparities, are the ones who have always known about inequity.

Charley echoed Hager’s focus on inequity in the government’s response to the pandemic and said her organization is still fighting against food insecurity, getting food to food banks, and putting helpful information on hand sanitizer that they are delivering to tribal communities.

“It hasn’t changed the core central messaging but what has changed in a way is how we are delivering services,” Charley said.

Charley said food insecurity, water insecurity and a lack of technology are all forms of inequities and violence against Native women.

“It has given us an opportunity to step back and hone in on the responses of the inequities and address them from that place,” she said.

She said before the pandemic, four out of five Native women will experience violence in her lifetime and said more than 70 percent will be violence of a sexual nature such as sexual assault.

She asked viewers to imagine being in those homes right now dealing with pressure points and having limited to no access to resources.

For example, if a survivor of violence does come out to seek shelter but the facility is a congregate living situation that lacks personal protective equipment (PPE), it would be hard to properly help them.

“Getting a hold of PPE is hard for shelters, however the state was able to mitigate some of that, but folks who are often left out of conversations, violence in homes, intimate partner, sexual assaults, these are conversations that anyone does not want to have to begin with,” she said.

Tribal communities have an array of creating distinct medical conditions that make the populations vulnerable to the virus combined with multi-generational homes, which  Charley said reveal deeper institutional issues when compared to more affluent parts of the state, and she pointed to Santa Fe County. 

She said with Santa Fe’s higher income, people can afford the ability to work from home and shelter in place. Most essential workers, she said, must continue to commute for work because there are not enough economic opportunities on the reservations.

For example, if an advocate lives on the reservation and leaves to go to the border town and then returns, they are at increased risk of exposing their family. And many of them live with large, multi-generational families.

Charley said in communities like those in McKinley County who are living under stay-at-home orders with no income, exiting inequities are made that much worse.

She encouraged viewers to act in solidarity with Native communities, whether it be through money or food donations, or respecting Native nations’ sovereignty by staying off sacred tribal parks or tribal land during the pandemic.

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