Native women’s association of canada

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Gangs, FASD, Sexual Exploitation and Extreme Violence in the Lives of Aboriginal Girls and Women

There are no published studies in Canada or elsewhere on the relationship between gangs, FASD, sexual exploitation and extreme violence in the lives of Aboriginal girls and women. Instead, as this report has demonstrated, there are anecdotal reports and a handful of exploratory studies on the relationship between sexual exploitation and gangs. Likewise, a handful of studies investigate the association between FASD and sexual exploitation. Figure One (Overlapping Cycles of Colonization, Ill Health and Violence) provides an illustration of the potential linkages between these issues and addresses some of the gaps in knowledge. The figure demonstrates that any analysis must be conducted within the historical context of colonization, intergenerational trauma, forced assimilation, and loss of traditional gender roles. Both the ‘vulnerable women’ and ‘FASD children’ circles include factors that cause vulnerability and FASD, as well as factors that result from these issues. The women’s circle depicts the pervasive, daily experiences with systems (justice, welfare, police, employment, health, court, government, etc.) that devalue women and do not take into account the diminished life chances and resources that women have compared to men. The FASD children’s circle focuses on both primary and secondary disabilities and how Canadian society fails to support individuals with disabilities such as FASD. As well, the diagram reflects the life cycle of FASD children’s transition into as adulthood, especially the fact that they themselves are likely to have FASD children.

A few studies have reported that mothers who give birth to FASD babies suffer extreme violence during pregnancy and as many as one in four mothers die within five years of birth.65 For example, a five-year follow-up study of birth mothers of children with full FAS found that participants came from diverse racial, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. These mothers had untreated and serious mental health problems, were socially isolated, suffered chronic physical and sexual abuse as children and adults, and experienced significant violence during their pregnancies at the hands of men.66 Another study investigated the prevalence of exposure to violence among a large sample (N=717) of pregnant women receiving substance abuse treatment at an inner-city treatment facility.67 These women and their children reported high rates of exposure to physical, sexual and psychological violence – all of which had significant health consequences for the women, children, and fetuses involved. A total of 26% of the women reported having a weapon available at home, 39% of whom reported having guns. This is important because gun possession leads to increased risk for both suicide and homicide in women.68 Male intimates are most likely to kill their female partners with these guns, and the use of illicit drugs increases the risk of homicide considerably.69

Valborg Kvigne and colleagues in the USA have conducted the only published study on the characteristics of Aboriginal mothers of children with FASD, including intentional and unintentional injuries.70 Their study, on the Northern Plains Indian women who have children with FAS and women who have children with some characteristics of FAS, examined suicide attempts, sexual abuse, and other serious problems. Although four of 78 mothers died, the authors do not explore the circumstances around these deaths.

Finally, research done by Drs. Ira Chasnoff and Sterling Clarren, two of the most distinguished practitioners and researchers in the world on the topic of FASD, also identifies that mothers of FASD children have an increased likelihood of dying at a young age. Their work on the women who give birth to FASD babies points to the “universal” horrific abuse these women have suffered and their lack of support systems. Their studies have not focussed on Aboriginal women. Of the women they have studied: 50% experienced physical violence during pregnancy; 33% had been sexually abused; 44% were ‘raped’; 30% had experienced loss due to violent death; 74% were pregnant by age 19; 25% had died by the time of 5-year follow up; 80-85% had mental health issues; 35% were children of alcoholics/addicts; and 20% had FASD themselves.


This paper has provided a preliminary investigation into the potential relationship between gangs, FASD, sexual exploitation and murdered/missing Aboriginal women in Canada. There are no published studies on the topic, although data exist on the linkages between some of the key variables. Due to these significant gaps in the literature, much more study is required on the relationship between these variables. It is important that future work focus on both the historical context of colonization and intergenerational trauma, as well as focus on the strength and resiliency of Aboriginal peoples.

Future research should be participatory in nature and make use of in-depth interviews and storytelling with family members of FASD youth who have suffered extreme violence and who have been sexually exploited and gang-involved. A logical place to start is with the SIS files. Although the SIS team has begun a preliminary analysis in this area, additional funding could support a comprehensive review of all cases. Another area of concern relates to gang-involved male youth who are doing the sexual exploitation and trafficking. Little is known on how these young men become involved in such acts, nor do we know why they engage in such behavior. For this reason, it is important to engage male participants in order to understand from their perspective how they perceive their roles in the exploitation, trafficking and perpetration of extreme violence against women. Resources for this aspect of the investigation should not be taken from those dedicated to addressing the needs of high risk young women and their families.

This preliminary study points to some areas for policy change. First, it is apparent that coming into the care of the child welfare system is a key driver into gang life for some Aboriginal youth. One reason why Aboriginal children are so over-represented in the child welfare system is because the INAC funding formula for child welfare is significantly less than that provided by provincial ministries. This likely prevents the allocation of adequate funding to keep children in their own homes instead of removing them. As well, FASD children are highly likely to be taken into care. Second, it is clear that there are many reasons why some Aboriginal mothers use drugs and alcohol, including both socio-historical and individual factors. Programs aimed at treating substance abuse only will not work. Reducing the prevalence of FASD requires resources to address the history of colonization. It also requires that we celebrate the successes of Aboriginal peoples.

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