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Study: Health risks twice as high in Alaskan urban Native women

By Rachel D’Oro
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) May 2010

Alaska Native and American Indian women living in the nation’s urban centers are more than twice as likely to experience nonconsenting sexual intercourse in their first encounter, a new study shows.

The report released during May also shows that a third of urban Indigenous women surveyed chose sterilization as a form of birth control. The study was conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle on data collected in the 2002 edition of the National Survey of Family Growth, which looks at U.S. populations between the reproductive ages of 15 and 44.

Of the 7,643 women surveyed in the 2002 study, health institute researchers focused comparisons between 299 urban indigenous women and 3,173 non-Hispanic whites.

Maile Taualii, a science consultant for the institute, said many parts of the study aren’t as conclusive as researchers would like. But it shines a light on urban indigenous women – a population generally overlooked in research.

“It’s a group that has fallen through the cracks,” Taualii said.

Researchers said their study is the first to examine the data for this subject because of the limited number of women studied. They hope it leads to more comprehensive research.

“It’s a small sample, but the striking findings still come through,” said lead researcher Shira Rutman.

Among Alaska Native and American Indian women, 17 percent had experienced non-voluntary sex their first time, compared with 8 percent white women, according to the 63-page report. Almost 14 percent of indigenous women said their first sex partner was seven or more years older, while 9 percent of white women reported sex partners who were much older.

The 2002 survey didn’t ask women outright if they had been sexually assaulted in their first encounter or any other time, and researchers say it’s another area that should be examined more closely.

Instead women noted how their encounters were nonconsenting, such as being pressured with words or actions, given alcohol or drugs, told the relationship would end if they didn’t have sex, threatened with harm, actually injured and physically held down. Women could choose as many categories as applied.

Women who had ever been forced to have intercourse at any age were more likely to have initiated sex before the age of 15, a sign of early risky behavior, Rutman said.

Another finding that stunned researchers was the rate at which women chose sterilization – 34 percent – compared with whites at 20 percent. Also prevalent among young Native women between the ages of 15 and 24 was the use of the injectable long-lasting hormonal contraceptive Depo-Provera, which researchers say can cause weight gain. That’s a possible health risk for American Indians and Alaska Natives, who are three times more likely to die from diabetes.

Depo-Provera was used by 23 percent young indigenous women, while only 7 percent white woman in the same age group used it.

“Why are the rates so different?” Taualii said. “This is something that should raise some alarm. That’s the question that we should be asking these women. Are these forms of contraception all they’re being advised on, all that’s being offered to them?”

On the Net:’s-Health-Report.pdf