Time is Running Out to Re-Authorize the Violence Against Women Act

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Commentary Violence

Time is Running Out to Re-Authorize the Violence Against Women Act

Yasmin Vafa

Originally passed in 1994, VAWA has been consistently reauthorized and improved with broad bipartisan support. This year, however, the far right wing in the House is insisting on leaving specific groups of women unprotected. Why?

Every nine seconds in the United States, a woman is assaulted or beaten. In fact, domestic violence is the number one cause of injury to women in this country—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. But despite these horrifying figures, Congress has failed to pass one of the single most important pieces of legislation aimed at protecting our nation’s women and girls. Time is running out for Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the cornerstone of our nation’s response to domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking. Originally passed in 1994, VAWA has been consistently reauthorized and improved with broad bipartisan support. This year, however, Congress has reached a roadblock.

In April, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that included critical provisions to protect Native American women, immigrant women, students, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. The House version of VAWA, however, fails to include these much needed provisions. The House bill passed despite opposition from over 320 advocacy groups, including a number of faith-based organizations, women’s organizations, civil rights organizations and domestic violence groups. The result of these two very different bills has been a stalemate that has stopped this crucial piece of legislation in its tracks.

On Monday, Speaker Boehner announced a list of Republican negotiators in hopes of launching a conference committee to reconcile the two bills. His actions mark the first signs of movement on this legislation in months. Many on the Senate side, however, want the House to simply vote on their bill, and do not see the need to go to conference.

The House and Senate versions of the bill differ in a number of key ways:

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  • The Senate version includes language that would enable Native American women to bring their non-Native abusers to court within the tribal system. Lawmakers and advocates claim this language is crucial given that Native American and Alaska Native women face disproportionate levels of domestic and sexual violence. According to Amnesty International, one in three Native American and Alaskan Native women will be raped in her lifetime; 86 percent of these rapes will be perpetrated by non-Native men. Because they also face complex jurisdictional issues that make prosecution of such violence nearly impossible, these women’s abusers often escape with complete impunity. The Senate version would provide these women access to the justice and protection they deserve under the law.
  • The Senate bill also provides greater protection to immigrant women and their children by providing greater access to temporary visas. There are currently about 19 million immigrant women and girls living in the U.S. These women often experience higher rates of sexual harassment, domestic violence, and exploitation than other women, yet they are much less likely to report such crimes. This is largely due to the fact that the legal status of many immigrant women and girls is tied to a family member, spouse, or employer which therefore hinders their ability to report instances of domestic or workplace violence or exploitation.  Moreover, unauthorized immigrant women fear reporting such abuses to the police for fear of deportation and/or separation from their family.  
  • Whereas the House bill remains gender neutral, the Senate version expressly seeks to protect LGBT individuals who are victims of violence. LGBT victims are often unable to access services due to discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In fact, 85 percent of service providers report working with an LGBT victim who had previously been denied services due to discrimination. The Senate version specifically prohibits service providers from refusing to serve victims based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

We are just days away from August recess and with every day that we fail to pass VAWA, the safety of millions of victims hangs in jeopardy. VAWA’s re-authorization should strive to enhance protections where desperately needed and continue to combat the pervasive patterns of violence in this country. It is absolutely critical that VAWA extend to all victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. We urge our Members of Congress to come together, rise above partisanship, and pass this critical piece of legislation to protect all victims of violence nationwide.