A domestic violence epidemic is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Alaska, but the state has the highest number of sexual assault victims in the U.S. per capita. Fairbanks, Ala., has the highest number of rapes per capita in the nation.
"The state has been doing a pretty good job of addressing sexual assault and domestic violence issues in the more urban areas, but we haven’t had the resources—and I don’t expect we’re ever going to have the resources—to properly address the problems in what we call ‘Bush Alaska.'"
Bush Alaska refers to the rural areas that are mainly inhabited by native Alaskan populations. Not only are these remote communities difficult to travel to, they also experience harsh weather conditions that make them unsafe to leave. Within the villages, resources for domestic violence victims are practically nonexistent.
Hub communities like Bethel and Nome provide shelters and resources where victims from small villages can seek refuge. Samaniego says, “Victims can be flown into those small towns and find safety at the shelters.”
There's no easy answer to explain why domestic violence is so prevalent in Alaska. Sandy Samaniego and Michelle DeWitt, director of the Tundra Women’s Coalition, an organization providing refuge for victims of domestic violence in rural areas, offer a bit of background on the high rates of abuse.
DeWitt explained to the Associated Press that sex crimes are about power and that the disparities are intensified in the tiny villages:
When a victim knows who harmed them and they live in a small community where everyone is related, they know that if they report that they were harmed then other community members will be impacted… Knowing that someone may be removed from the community makes it very difficult to talk about it.
Samaniego says one of the factors that contributes to the high rate of domestic violence is state demographics. “The population here is younger than most other states.”
Prevention is key, according to Samaniego. “In the past, the government has been very aware of Alaska’s problem and has been committing a lot of resources to addressing domestic violence through crisis intervention. Unfortunately, what has been left in the dust up until a year or two ago, has been the prevention aspect.”
According to Samaniego, the new governor of Alaska, Sean Parnell, "has made addressing domestic violence and sexual assault two of his top priorities.”
With people like DeWitt and Samaniego working to combat the crisis, and the governor pitting state resources against domestic violence, Alaska could significantly reduce its rates of sexual assault and rape in the near future.