By Kimmy Yam
“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.
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.”
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