VAWA & The Partisan Fight Over Violence Against Women

Headline Wednesday in The Hill read ‘GOP Concedes on domestic violence bill’.  Concedes? We’re talking about battling domestic violence and we’re fighting about it? I’m still trying to wrap my head around anyone taking the position against legislation to prevent domestic violence and provide for victims. I figured others might be having the same reaction, so here’s my breakdown of what is happening around Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Re-authorization.

The History

After several years of Congressional hearings from experts, service providers and victims, then –Senator Joe Biden in 1994, which passed through both the House and Senate with bipartisan support.  Through the initial passage, the bill established the Office of Violence Against Women, within the Department of Justice which administers the provisions.  It also provided $1.6 billion for investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, bringing together the criminal justice and social service systems as well as nonprofit organizations.  VAWA provided guarantees of interstate enforcement of protection orders, protected battered immigrants and Native Americans.

Since the original passage of VAWA, the bill has been brought back to Congress twice for re-authorization, in 2000 and 2005.  Both times it was passed with bipartisan support.  When you look at what parts of this year’s bill are controversial it can become confusing, as some of these are simply expanding on previous provisions.

For example, in 2000 the legislation provided further protections for immigrants by establishing special visas for those experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.  A focus was also placed that year on sex trafficking.  While dating violence and stalking were new additions, they provided a stepping stone to this year’s additions, as well as filling a gap in assistance and needs for victims.

In 2005, VAWA was expanded to assist immigrant victims in ways previous legislation and legislation was unable to do.  It also was the first time funding was available for rape crisis centers, and developed culturally and linguistically specific services for communities – which better allows non-English speaking victims to seek support or services.

VAWA in 2012 (The “Controversial” Parts):

While VAWA is about protecting everyone from domestic violence and abuse, there are specific communities where getting legal protections, services, support or even housing in a shelter can be almost impossible.

Immigrants, legal or not, have been protected under the law from the start, but this year, Senate Democrats want to increase the cap on visas for victims of violence and sexual assault from 10,000 to 15,000 visas.  Providing high level protection for an additional 5,000 immigrants is apparently too much for the GOP.  These are not additional visas ready for those cases where victims need them, but would come from unused visas from the previous year.

Native American women face much higher rates of abuse, and the Senate Democrats have provided one way to change those rates.  By providing limited jurisdiction to tribes to prosecute offenders in domestic violence cases the gap in jurisdiction can begin to close.  This part was actually taken from the SAVE Native Women Act, which received bipartisan support.

While women are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, it happens to everyone.  Provisions for the LGBTQ community are crucial to providing services for, and prosecuting all domestic violence cases.  Men’s shelters are often much smaller, do not allow as lengthy of stays as women’s shelters, and may not feel entirely safe to gay victims.  Reasons gay and lesbian victims are often turned away from housing is because of their sexual orientation.  Transgender victims have the hardest time seeking help, shelter and assistance, often because providers do not understand the situation, and are unsure how to address issues and provide appropriate levels of help.  Discrimination is a problem, and while it is one that is in process of being addressed by many organizations and communities who provide assistance and services to all victims, it is not yet solved.  Specificity in this case is crucial, as it will forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation.  What is still needed is, funds to organizations providing assistance to the LGBTQ community for services and training providers working with victims.

Clearly the issue the GOP has is assisting anyone who is not an English speaking, heterosexual woman, at least in an election year.  A bill that provides assistance to prevent domestic violence and make it easier to seek legal assistance should always be supported, should always be passed, and should never require a fight.

The Republican Version (in brief):

Mandatory minimums for perpetrators.  This would affect victim reporting, as most victims know the perpetrator.

Using Gender Neutral language instead of addressing LGBTQ community specifically.  Gender neutral language does not address the need of specified assistance for LGBTQ victims. 

Limiting U-Visa program for illegal immigrant victims.  This would actually result in under reporting and make it less likely for victims to seek help from law enforcement.

Requires applications be denied if the perpetrator is found “not guilty”.  State criminal laws are different, and should a perpetrator be released in such a way, the victim in danger, with little option at that point for further legal action. 

Requires Native American victims to seek protective orders in federal court.  Expecting victims to travel to the nearest federal court, sometimes hundreds of miles from home will only reduce the number of victims from tribal lands seeking protective orders and additional assistance. 

With the Senate bill passing as is, what will come up in the House?

House Republicans are proposing:

  • Increase penalties for stalkers who target minors and the elderly
  • Funding to clear the backlog of untested rape kits that could be as high as 400,00

Needless to say it will not include provisions from the Senate Democratic version.  These are good things, and they are needed, but it doesn’t cover enough of the problem.

I know the version from 2005 will continue.  Everything will go through before the current bill ends in September.  Public safety is not something we need to fight about, and toss around, especially in an election year. If only we could find a way to combine the good things that come from each of these, if only we could work together.  After all my reading I’m still loss as to why Republicans do not trust tribal courts.


*Photo credit: Flickr user kabl1992

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