Violence Against Women—Unfinished Business
The new Congress will have to undo the damage caused by GOP House members who blocked reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act—legislation that until now had earned broad bipartisan support.
Four women die each day because of domestic violence. Yet the legislation designed to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault and treat survivors expired after House Republicans blocked it. They objected to the Senate’s proposed expansion of Native American jurisdiction on reservations for domestic violence and sexual assault prosecution by tribal courts. The Senate 2012 reauthorization also expanded programs for immigrant and LGBT victims, provisions that actually met little opposition, according to a Senate staffer.
With Congress’s January 2 adjournment, the laborious process will begin all over again in the current legislative session that opened January 3.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), originally passed in 1994, was authored by Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware. The vice-president recently traveled to the Hill to advocate for renewal of the act, which enjoyed automatic bipartisan support when it came up for reauthorization in 2000 and 2005.
VAWA is credited with reducing annual rates of domestic violence by more than 60 percent. Still, 24 people per minute report experiencing intimate partner violence in the United States. That’s one in four women and one in seven men.
The Senate passed its version last April and was widely hailed for expanding services to Native American, immigrant and LGBT women. In response, the House passed a bill lacking these provisions, legislation that the American Bar Association opposed as “a retreat in the battle against domestic and sexual violence.”
Stepped up negotiations in late November and December by Biden and others sought to persuade top House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) to grant a green light. But it proved too steep a climb. Cantor even shot down a compromise proposed by some House Republicans, allowing tribal courts to try non-Indians in rape and domestic violence cases, “while still letting the defendants move the case to a federal court if they felt their rights weren’t being protected,” reported MSNBC.
Since talks failed, Congress will have to start from scratch. Fortunately, according to a Democratic staffer, funding will continue for now through appropriations. But “improvements won’t go into effect” since the reauthorization didn’t go through. “That’s not good enough,” she said. Nevertheless, the proposed new protections for Native American women and for the LGBT and immigrant victims will have to wait.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who championed the bill through the Judiciary Committee that he chairs, spoke about VAWA’s value and expressed frustration with the lack of progress. "With the Violence Against Women Act, we have things that actually help women, help women escape violence, help them have places where they can go if they're subject to violence and it has helped hundreds of thousands of women all over the country," Leahy said.
Activists who work on behalf of domestic violence victims and their families are livid.
“It’s unbelievable,” commented Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It makes no sense.” Funding uncertainties will cause some programs to slow down or stop, she said. “We need it in writing and we need that kind of commitment that we’ve had since 1994.”
Patti Seger, executive director of Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, blamed partisanship more than differing policy opinions. “It’s sad that they’re playing politics with the lives of people who are being victimized,” she said.
“I think it’s ideological, said Seger. These same provisions—for immigrants, the LGBT community—have been overwhelmingly supported by both Republicans and Democrats every single time in the past.” The 2012 VAWA reauthorization contained an expansion on existing protections, not brand new ones, Seger explained. “The devil is in the details and there are really a lot of refinements,” she said. Reauthorization would have addressed some programs that are underfunded, for example. To Seger it's a lost opportunity. "The Senate version of VAWA proposed some very positive changes, positive reforms and closed some loopholes,” she added.
The Native American provisions addressed one such loophole. One in three Native American women are raped or abused, and more than 80 percent of the perpetrators are non-Native Americans. Under current law, the tribes cannot prosecute these criminals. “More often than not, these people walk free, having committed a horrendous crime against a woman,” said Seger.
Also included in the Senate bill are more U visas to allow immigrant victims to stay in the country while escaping their violent partners, and more access to funding for the LGBT community, said Seger. The new language makes it clear that services should be made available to LGBT victims, she said. And expanded U visa availability is especially important to human trafficking victims, whose captors often threaten to report them for deportation if they try to escape, thus ensuring their silence.
Before the break, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) summed up the sentiments of many working on VAWA reauthorization. “I’ll start next year determined, but slightly depressed, that we have so much more work to do than we should have to do at this point,” she said.
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