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Category: Politics, Violence against Women

Who’s Playing Politics with the Violence Against Women Act?

| April 25, 2012

The Violence Against Women Act has always been a point of agreement between the parties in Washington. Until now.

It was first passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress in 1994—a year not otherwise noted for its harmonious relations between the parties. Twice since then, it has been reauthorized with support from Democrats and Republicans alike. The most recent reauthorization for the Act, being discussed on the Senate floor this afternoon, has sixty-one co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. But that hasn't stopped Senate Republicans from throwing together their own slapdash substitute proposal only days before the Senate was due to take up S. 1925, the original reauthorization bill crafted over months under the guidance of many hundreds of anti-violence advocates and service providers. Incredibly, it is Republicans and their allies in the "war on women" (and LGBT folk and people of color and immigrants and the not-rich and...) who are now accusing Democrats of playing politics on the topic of gendered violence.

What Republicans call "playing politics" is the strengthening of protections against violence for members of communities who are subject to unique risks of gendered violence: immigrants, women on Native American reservations, and those in same-sex relationships. In a conference call with reporters this week, National Organization for Women president Terry O'Neill points out that immigrant women's abusers often deny them access to their own passports or visas in order to restrict their mobility, that women on reservations are caught in a jurisdictional grey area between state and tribal authorities, and that same-sex abuse victims are often turned away from shelters or services that are unprepared to accommodate them. 

The 2005 VAWA reauthorization specifically instructed agencies operating with VAWA funds to gather data to identify which demographic groups who were most urgently in need of the services funded by the Act. That law required that grantees "recognize and meaningfully respond to the needs of underserved populations and ensure that monies set aside to fund linguistically and culturally specific services and activities for underserved populations are distributed equitably among those populations." By definition, "underserved populations" will be marginalized groups; marginalization cannot be overcome without specific identification and inclusion.

Right-wing objections to "culturally specific services" are built on the proven-false assumptions that a victim is a victim, and no one victim's risks or needs are any greater than any other's. If this line of thinking sounds familiar, it's because it's a close cousin to the belief that "color-blindness" is preferable to acknowledging that not all colors are created equal in the U.S.A. To allow the Republicans to pass their substitute proposal—which they would call color-blind, sexual-orientation-blind, and national-origin-blind, but anti-violence advocates would call deeply, unfixably flawed—means that the same privileged populations who were always first in line for services will stay there. Any debate, in the media or in the Congress, over the immigrant, Native American, and same-sex provisions of the Violence Against Women Act must start from a point of acknowledgement of that fact.