HONOLULU – At first he was just a boyfriend. He offered gifts and attention to Ashley Maha’a. But then he gave her medication and became controlling and abusive. He would punish her for breaking ambiguous and undefined “rules”, only to later say he was sorry and shower her with flowers and lavish gifts.
After awhile, he led the Honolulu high school student – a 17-year-old underage – into Hawaii’s commercial sex industry.
“I shouldn’t be here with everything that was going on. I should be dead. And the majority of people in my situation are missing or dead, ”said Maha’a, who is of Hawaiian descent.
Maha’a came out of this world years ago and is now married with four children. But it is in her mind that she joins a new task force studying the issue of missing and murdered Native Hawaiian women and girls. She remembers her plight every day so that she can fight for other equally trapped and vulnerable people.
The panel, created by the State House earlier this year, aims to collect data and identify the reasons for the problem. So far, few figures exist, but those that suggest Indigenous Hawaiians are disproportionately represented among victims of sex trafficking in the state.
Her work comes amid renewed calls for people to pay more attention to missing and killed Indigenous women and girls and other people of color following the recent disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white woman, which sparked widespread national media coverage and extensive law enforcement research. Petito’s body was later found in Wyoming.
Several states formed similar panels after a groundbreaking report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that of more than 5,700 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous girls in dozens of U.S. cities in 2016, only 116 were recorded in one. database of the Ministry of Justice.
The Wyoming task force determined that 710 Indigenous people were missing there between 2011 and September 2020, and that Indigenous people made up 21% of homicide victims despite making up just 3% of the population. In Minnesota, a task force led to the creation of a dedicated office to provide continued attention and leadership on the issue.
The Urban Indian Health Institute report did not include data on the state of Hawaii because the organization is funded by the Indian Health Service, a US agency that serves Native Americans and Alaska Natives. , but not the Hawaiians. The Seattle institute did not have the resources to expand the study to the islands, said director Abigail Echo-Hawk.
This isn’t the first time that Native Hawaiians have been sidelined from the larger national conversation. The federal government’s efforts to tackle the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women often focus on Native Americans and Alaska Natives – in part because it has authority over major crimes over most tribal lands, and that the Hawaiians do not have such lands in the same sense. like many other indigenous communities in the United States. A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry said he was instead working to support and collaborate with state programs in the islands.
Yet Hawaii faces many of the same challenges as other states, including a lack of data on missing and murdered Indigenous women. The precise number of cases nationwide is unknown as many have not been reported or have not been well documented or followed up.
Public and private agencies do not always collect statistics on race. And some data lends Indigenous Hawaiians together with other Pacific Islanders, making it impossible to identify the degree to which Indigenous people in Hawaii are affected. About 20% of the state’s population is of Hawaiian descent.
Its task force is led by representatives from the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a semi-autonomous state agency led by Native Hawaiians. The panel also includes members of state agencies, county police departments and private organizations.
Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the commission and co-chair of the task force, suspects her work will show Hawaii’s large tourism industry and military presence are fueling sex trafficking. The money to be made in these sectors motivates people to remove girls and women from their families, she said.
“It’s not like someone is kidnapped on the street. It is this person who is attracted and convinced to cut off their family whether it is a child or a teenager, ”said Jabola-Carolus.
Advocates for Native American and Native Alaskan women and girls say sex trafficking affects them as well, especially in areas with high populations of transient male workers.
Maha’a said the extent of the sex industry in Hawaii is also illustrated by the number of girls and women brought to the islands from other states.
“I have met so many people on the mainland, and so, so, so many of them told me that when they were trafficked nationally they would be brought here for a period of time. and would work here when things were slow, because the demand is so high, ”Maha’a said.
Advocates say a number of systemic issues are contributing to the problem. Native Hawaiians have the highest poverty rate – 15.5% – of one of Hawaii’s five largest racial groups, which is also one of the most expensive places in the country to rent or own. a property.
The history of colonization has uprooted native Hawaiians from their land, language and culture, as have native communities in other states.
Rosemond Pettigrew, chair of the board of directors of Pouhana ‘O Na Wahine, a grassroots collective of indigenous Hawaiian women fighting domestic and sexual violence, said land is family and not being connected to it separates Native Hawaiians from their past.
“When you separate from what you know or what you believe, and you are no longer on earth, then you end up where you don’t know where you came from and who you are, and who you are. is getting lost. ” she said.
Echo-Hawk, of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said the Hawaii task force is “monumental” and necessary to understand the full extent of the problem.
She suspects that some of her biggest hurdles will be getting the cooperation of law enforcement agencies and not having dedicated funding. Lawmakers have not allocated any money to the panel, so its members are relying on existing resources to conduct their research. The top performing state task forces had funding, Echo-Hawk said.
It will be important for the task force to recognize that the problems are rooted in government policy, said Paula Julian, senior policy specialist at the Montana-based National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. Solutions for Native Hawaiians, meanwhile, must come from Native Hawaiians, she said.
Pettigrew said she would like to see resources dedicated to prevention.
For example, public schools in Hawaii could teach students about healthy relationships, starting in elementary school. Lessons could focus on dating once students enter middle and high schools.
State Representative Stacelynn Eli, a native of Hawaii and a Democrat who sponsored the resolution creating the task force, said she has friends and classmates who have been trafficked. She doesn’t want her nieces to face the same thing because no one knew enough to act.
“We are surviving and I would like to see our people reach a point where we thrive. And I think we won’t get to that point until we know for sure that we are protecting our indigenous women and children and that we hold accountable those who try to harm them, ”she said. .
The group is expected to produce reports for the Legislature by the end of 2022 and 2023.