Congress FINALLY Passes The Violence Against Women Act!

The fact that VAWA languished for so long is an illustration of what a political football women’s rights in the US have become, that we cannot even get Congress to agree on a basic and fundamental issue, which is that women should be safe from sexual assault and domestic violence.

Feb 28, 2013 at 5:05pm | Leave a comment

Do you know how excited I get when I actually have GOOD NEWS to share?! You probably don’t. Anyway, I’m really excited right now. As you may (probably) already know, the Violence Against Women Act was (FINALLY) reauthorized, and it’s on its way to the White House for the President’s signature, which represents a huge victory over obstructionist Republicans who apparently like violence against women.

This issue has been dragging on for months, in a rather shocking display of how callous conservatives can be; they didn’t like some of the provisions in the inclusive Senate bill, so they held it up in the House. Eventually they came up with a “substitute” which didn’t include those provisions, and this morning, that substitute failed, with the House voting to support the full Senate bill.

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Photo credit: Andrew Malone.

So, what exactly were these highly objectionable clauses in VAWA, things so offensive and awful that it was necessary to hold up the passage of a critically important bill? Well, one of them was the addition of specific protections for LGBQT victims, and another covered undocumented immigrants, while a critically important provision (about which more in a moment), had to do with expanding the scope of protections for tribal women.

Other provisions included measures to address campus rape, untested rape kits, human trafficking, and improving training and education for handling rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. In other words, the inclusive version of VAWA specifically addressed extremely vulnerable populations known to experience higher rates of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, and took on some particular problems that are making it harder to successfully prosecute such cases.

This all seems like good stuff to be doing; certainly most of the women’s rights movement supported these things, for obvious reasons. But conservatives strongly disliked the provisions for LGBQT folks, undocumented people and Native victims, and that’s what held up VAWA for over 500 days.

PROTECTING NATIVE WOMEN

The protections for Native victims were particularly important. 39% of American Indian and Native American women experience domestic violence during their lifetimes, 34% are raped, and the murder rate on some reservations is ten times the national average. VAWA finally offers the opportunity to try non-Indian offenders in tribal courts for select crimes, including rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and violation of restraining orders.

This is designed to specifically address the fact that many of these crimes are perpetrated by white men, and previously, reservation authorities were powerless to do anything about it. If you think that’s repulsive, welcome to the club. VAWA restores the capability to actually bring offenders to justice, instead of setting up Native American and Alaska Native women as easy victims.

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Photo credit: Andrew Prickett

What VAWA won’t do is put offenders in double jeopardy, dilute federal and state authority, give widespread jurisdiction to tribal authorities, or deprive offenders of their full legal rights and protections. This is a huge victory for Native and Indigenous women, and a small step in the fight against the tide of violence against Native and Indigenous women across the US.

PROTECTING LGBQT PEOPLE

While the LGBQ community experiences sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and related issues at a rate roughly comparable (trans people experience much higher rates of sexual assault and domestic violence) to that of the heterosexual population, they face a number of barriers when it comes to reporting and receiving justice. They're often denied services, particularly in the case of transgender women. Needed services can include access to shelters, counseling, victim assistance, and more; VAWA aims to fix that, creating a framework for addressing the unique vulnerabilities of the LGBQT population.

Working to recognize vulnerable minority populations is an important part of the point of VAWA, and preserving these provisions was a key victory. While services were already provided under the existing law, the inclusive VAWA tightens definitions and more clearly spells out the need to address service disparities. 

PROTECTING UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS

Undocumented immigrants face extremely high rates of sexual assault and violence, and because of their tenuous legal status, they're at a profound disadvantage when it comes to reporting it and being taken seriously. Unlike people who are in the country legally, they cannot count on law enforcement to take complaints, and in some cases, law enforcement itself is the perpetrator; the US Border Patrol, for example, abuses are routinely committed by officers acting in the name of the federal government. 

Women in the country without documentation are human beings who deserve dignity and respect. Yet, as Flavia Dzodan recently wrote so wrenchingly at Tiger Beatdown, discussing her formerly undocumented status in The Netherlands, undocumented women are treated like garbage. The inclusive version of VAWA challenges that, creating a process for addressing the epidemic of unreported violence committed against undocumented women in the US. 

Today’s news is definitely something to celebrate, because it means increased protections for women and a stronger social framework for combating rape and sexual assault in the US.

But let’s not forget that the war isn’t over.

WHAT'S NEXT?

We can’t legislate away social inequality, and we still live in a culture where women are devalued, sexualized, and targeted as easy victims, something especially true for women of colour. As we were reminded last weekend, sexualizing 9 year old Black girls apparently passes for entertainment for many residents of the United States, and VAWA is not going to change that. Laws like this must be actively enforced, and when they come up for authorization, the response needs to be swift and decisive, without obstructionism and heel-dragging over the idea of extending protections to all women in need in the US.

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Photo credit: Dave Newman.

The fact that VAWA languished for so long is an illustration of what a political football women’s rights in the US have become, that we cannot even get Congress to agree on a basic and fundamental issue, which is that women should be safe from sexual assault and domestic violence. And that when women are victims, they deserve the right to respectful, fair, rapid treatment of their cases to investigate the crime, bring suspects to trial, and obtain a conviction.

That this is even a question, a subject of debate, something Congress needs to chew its nails over, shows that the United States is living in grim conditions right now. Republican legislators aren’t just confident that their constituents will overlook their shocking disregard for women’s lives; they’re banking on their “proud” voting records as opponents of VAWA and other acts of legislation intended to protect women in the US.

People often ask me why I’m so angry all the time. This is why.