“Special” Protections for “Special” Women: Why the Violence Against Women Act Expired

Nobody warned me.

When I started to “come out” as a feminist activist – not just talking with friends, but sharing articles on Facebook, writing extensively about women’s rights, and participating in advocacy movements – nobody warned me.

Nobody warned me that friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, and sometimes total strangers who’d come across my writing online, would come to me with their stories. With their problems.  With their worries.

And come they did.  First it was Susan, who had seemed in a perfectly happy and healthy relationship. Except that as it turns out, her boyfriend pressured her to have sex with him every night, and was aggressive when she refused.  She was petrified of him. Then it was Rachel, who read about the tweet chat Fem2.0 hosted a few months ago at #EndtheSilence, where survivors of domestic violence spoke out on twitter about their experiences using anonymous Twitter accounts.  Rachel wanted to learn how to use Twitter so she could share her story, too. Then it was Nick, an acquaintance who sent me a Facebook message because one of his best friends from high school never spoke about her husband, but kept showing up at the emergency room with suspicious bruises.  Another time it was Roxanne, who’d been to court twice already to get restraining orders against her former boyfriend who was by all definitions of the word, stalking her.

And then there were the rapes.  My friends will sometimes talk as openly about the second time they were raped as my male friends will about the second time they had sex.  My girlfriends post social media updates about the sexual harassment they face on a daily basis (often detailing the exact intersection where it happened so as to warn others), will caution one another about the violent and controlling tendencies of a particular guy they met online, or else ask each other about the safety of a new neighborhood – particularly for a woman living alone.

The truth is, violence against women is everywhere. And not just in India, Syria, SomaliaSri Lanka, or Ghana.   Here in America, it is a pervasive part of our society.  Even for those of us who believe our friends, our circles, are less susceptible to such violence than are others – still, it is everywhere.  When we open our eyes, when we are exposed to what is happening around us, in even the most seemingly unlikely of corners, we realize that none of us is immune to it.  Violence against women has come to be seen as almost inherent to the female experience.

And like the rest of society, the House of Representatives chose to not provide additional help and support to female survivors of violence for one reason – they don’t recognize it as a real problem.

VAWA Activists

I know what some of you are thinking – the House Republicans were just trying to derail President Obama’s agenda.  Or else they were using women as a political football, and it was all strategy.  These things aren’t false.  But the truth is that just as the establishment of the Republican Party doesn’t believe in government spending or in education for undocumented children or in investment in clean energy alternatives, they also don’t believe that women need and therefore deserve special protection or assistance.

The Violence Against Women Act

First, some quick background.  The Violence Against Women Act has been renewed with overwhelming bipartisan support since its inception in 1994.  This bill strengthens the criminal justice system and provides support to survivors of domestic violence.  Unfortunately, it also expired in October 2011, and with the 112th Congress officially finishing at the close of 2012, the Act is officially dead, requiring the 113th Congress to start from scratch.

VAWA is, quite literally, a life-saver for millions of women.  The bill has funded the training of 500,000 law enforcement officials in relevant issues, established the National Domestic Violence Hotline which receives 22,000 calls each month, and has led to a significant increase in not just the reporting of such violence, but also in the strengthening of legal protections and services for survivors.

This year, we wanted to do more.  The Senate version of the reauthorization bill included increased protections for LGBTQ, undocumented, and Native American women, all of whom are at significantly higher risk than other demographics. The reauthorized bill would have expanded protections to 30 million more women.

But the question of equality and human rights is what is really the issue here.  Because apparently these Republican Representatives who blocked the bill from coming to a vote believe that being gay, entering the country without a visa, or else living on a Native American reservation are all crimes that prohibit you from being entitled to protection and assistance in the event that you are assaulted.  Or maybe it’s just that the crime of being a woman simply means that there’s no such thing as a gender-based crime being committed against you, because your crime in existing means that frankly, you got what was coming to you.

Republicans did not want to extend special protections or resources to these special groups of women.  But the truth is that just as not all men are created equal, neither are all women created equal.

Does “Equality” Help or Hurt Our Cause?

In her 2006 book, Are Women Human?, feminist advocate and law professor Catherine MacKinnon explores the legal difficulties inherent in seeking “equality” for women. She writes:

Aristotle defined equality as treating likes alike and unlikes unalike. Treating those who are the same the same, first class equality in this approach, is termed gender neutrality for sex, colorblindness for race. Its secondary rule, accompanied by an aura of inferiority, treats diffrently those seen as different; it is typically termed “special benefits” or “special protection.”

So here we are with an understanding of the 14th Amendment, or more specifically the Equal Protection Clause, which states that the law cannot deny protection and rights to one person or group of people that is enjoyed by another person or group of people.  If you are alike, you must be treated alike.  If you are different, and you experience that difference in a way that is degrading or violent, it does not defy “equal protection” because you are experiencing that difference in a context of different.  MacKinnon explains further:

Sexual violence seems assimilated to the difference between the sexes, so a woman is not considered treated unequally when she is sexually victimized, just treated differently for her differences. Sexual assault is seen as inevitable. The fact that women are generally victimized and men generally perpetrate is not considered subject to equalization. When women are treated “differently” from men, from sexual objectification to sexual murder, the traditional equality rule is not seen as violated because the distinction made by the practice fits the empirical definition of the group. Women being defined as rapable, raping them doesn’t violate them; it merely treats them as women – unlikes unalike.

What does any of this have to do with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act? Quite a lot, actually.

When the House of Representatives put forth their own version of the VAWA, the provisions and protections for these additional groups – LGTBQ, undocumented, and Native American women – had been stripped.  When asked about it on NPR, Representative Sandy Adams (R-FL) responded as follows:

Let’s not look – let’s not have a solution in search of a problem … What we have to remember is you start listing the groups. Eventually, you’re going to get to a point where you’re excluding people. 

And that’s the real problem, isn’t it? That Republicans don’t want to acknowledge that women are different – and not “good” different.  Different in the fact that we face scenarios and life style requirements that they can never understand or appreciate.  And that even within that very broad definition of “women,” there are specific demographics of women who experience violence at higher rates and in different ways.

Republicans refuse to understand this.  These legislators – almost exclusively men – who control our government and our public policy.

Why were additional protections and assistance written into the law for these demographics of women? Because these demographics of women are facing higher risk of violence and lower rates of support than other demographics of women.  This is what the evidence shows.

While the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs estimates that the rate of domestic violence for homosexual couples is roughly the same as heterosexual couples, the former are significantly less likely to seek or receive help, and women are the overwhelming majority of the victims when such cases end in death. Native American women suffer from violent crime at some of the highest rates in the U.S., particularly at the hands of non-Native American men, because the tribes have no authority over such men.  And as I’ve written about before, immigrant women face unique challenges in seeking aid for domestic violence cases. Immigration status is just an additional tool used by abusive spouses or partners to control their victims and exert power over their lives.  If the abuser has legal status in the United States, he can use that status to his victim’s disadvantage, often by threatening to report her to authorities or refusing to file the petitions and paperwork that would give the victim legal status in the U.S.

But Republicans don’t want to acknowledge this.  In their view, women are either the same, equal to men, or they aren’t.  But we can’t have it both ways. They don’t support affirmative action because they don’t want to acknowledge or officially recognize that racism and poverty and class do, in fact, play a role in higher education admissions or in hiring practices.  Even though we all know they do.

So what’s really going on here?  As far as I can see it, Republicans who blocked the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act from coming to a vote simply do not see this as an urgent need.  Or as a problem at all really, it seems.

Maybe it’s because they secretly don’t really believe that women are really victims here.  Maybe, like the New Delhi police, they secretly believe that women who are the victims of rape really deserved it.  Maybe they are all like Democratic Congressman Jim Moran, who, after his son was arrested for beating up his girlfriend, released a statement calling it “an accident,” instead of a crime.

One way or another, these Republicans didn’t view the safety and lives of women as being worthy of protection or support.

The 113th Congress

Less than two weeks ago, with the 112th Congress coming rapidly to a close, the 12 Democratic women serving in the Senate sent a letter to all 25 Republican women serving in the House of Representatives.  “We are reaching out to you to ask for your help,” they wrote.  The letter urged the House Republican women to pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act, which included the increased protections and aid for the three additional groups of women. Because the truth is that despite differences, there exists a shared experience of being female in a male-dominated world.  A shared experience that women serving in government recognize.  And this extends beyond even just the officeholders – the Women’s Congressional Staff Association has over 100 members from both sides of the aisle, providing mentorship, guidance, support, and shared professional fellowship in their quest to support one another, regardless of party affiliation.

This morning, a record number of women were sworn in to serve as part of the 113th Congress: 20 in the Senate and 81 in the House of Representatives.  In fact, all kinds of gender-related records were broken in the 2012 Election cycle: women who filed for Senate races (36), women who won primaries for Senate seats (18), women who filed for House races (299), women who won primaries for House seats (166).

Women of the 113th Congress

And, as has been documented, the women from both sides seem to have a way of coming together civilly (not, for instance, screaming the F word at one another on the floor), to actually get things done.  Women in Congress have crossed party lines – happily – to pass legislation not just on issues relating to women specifically, but also on children’s safety, national security, public health, transportation, and recommendations for Supreme Court nominations.

Senator Patty Murray, a longtime advocate for the bill, has vowed to absolutely bring up the Violence Against Women Act in the 113th Congress. Will her new female colleagues – from both sides of the hill and the aisle – aid her in its passage?  This new Congress is the most diverse Congress in history – it includes 19 new people of color, the first Hindu Representative and the first Buddhist Senator, the first openly gay Congressman of color, and the first openly bisexual Congresswoman, that our federal government has ever see.

Perhaps this new diversity will bring about the change we wish to see in the world.  Perhaps this new, diverse Congress with more female members than ever before, will be able to move forward on protecting and providing for survivors in a way that the previous Congress refused to do.

Maybe we can stop saying that “gender issues have to take a back seat to other priorities… [because] there is no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project.”  Because after all, even with the fiscal cliff negotiations, Sandy relief funding, and other issues that faced the 112th Congress in its dusk, can we really continue to claim that the health and safety – the lives – of women, aren’t worth the effort it takes to protect them?

Every two minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.  Every 15 seconds, somewhere in America, a woman is battered, usually by an intimate partner.  But every day, we also have a chance to do more to support and protect women, uniquely at risk for unique types of violence.

I don’t mention here the costs associated with violence against women.  What it costs us – in billions of dollars a year, what the court costs add up to, what the lost economic productivity of battered women amounts to.  Is it important? I suppose.  But ending violence against women and prosecuting perpetrators and providing help to survivors isn’t about cost.  It’s not about capitalism and about making our country as financially robust as possible.

It’s about women being people and people being women.  It’s about women’s rights being human rights and human rights being women’s rights. It’s simply the right thing to do.  Because women shouldn’t need to be men to be considered human.  For their rights to be considered as worthwhile.

Women are different from men.  There’s no doubt about it.  But being different doesn’t mean being less human.  It doesn’t mean violations against our minds and bodies, the denial of our freedoms or our liberties, aren’t human rights violations just because they didn’t happen to men – that status quo of humanity.

The 112th Congress failed in its quest to represent the American people in its failure to pass the Violence Against Women Act.  Let’s make sure the new Congress does better.

Lives – human lives – depend on it.


Photo Credits: PolicyMic and EMILY’s List




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