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The Struggle to End Violence Against Women Encounters a Road Block

Every single day, three women are killed by husbands or boyfriends. Every year, victims suffer two million injuries. A strong renewal of the Violence Against Women Act is critical.
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Until this year, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was the poster child for bipartisanship. First passed in 1994 under the leadership of then-Senator Joe Biden, it garnered overwhelming support when it was reauthorized in 2000 and again in 2005. Now, however, it too has become politicized, a casualty of the culture wars. Although the legislation to reauthorize VAWA (S 1925) still has bipartisan sponsors, it was recently voted out of committee in the Senate 10-8 on a strict party-line vote and final passage is by no means certain.

Why? Because it explicitly strengthens protections for those experiencing violence at the hands of a same-sex partner, as well as for immigrants and Native American women. In the highly charged atmosphere of today's Congress, it seems that nothing -- not even support for victims of crime -- is safe from controversy, and if the controversy involves women's rights, the rhetoric of opponents escalates.

Shouldn't the facts speak for themselves? Since 1994, VAWA states and local communities have received $4 billion to help them prosecute crimes of domestic violence and provide lifesaving services to victims. Since VAWA's passage, reported domestic violence has dropped by 58 percent. But the toll it takes it still disastrously high. Every single day, three women are killed by husbands or boyfriends. Every year, victims suffer two million injuries. A strong renewal of VAWA is critical to lowering these statistics, and more importantly, to ending the suffering of all victims and their families.

This year's reauthorization bill, introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), seeks to ensure that VAWA includes protections and services for all victims, regardless of who they are or what their abusers look like. It addresses the unique needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) victims, and those of immigrant victims, foreign brides, and Native women residing on tribal lands. All these populations have, thus far, been denied the full power of VAWA.

LGBTQ people encounter domestic violence at the same rate as the general population, yet a survey by the New York City Anti-Violence Project reported that in 2010 nearly half were turned away from domestic violence shelters and more than half of LGBTQ survivors were denied orders of protection. Few victim services and law enforcement agencies reported specific services for LGBTQ victims. Perhaps it is no wonder that less than one in ten of all LGBTQ victims reported the violence committed against them to police.

Immigrant women without legal status are especially vulnerable to abuse, since going to the authorities carries with it the risk of deportation while the abuser may go free. Since 2000, VAWA has offered victims of domestic violence and sexual assault protection against deportation when they aid in the investigation and prosecution of crimes. Immigrant victims can apply for a special visa, but only if law enforcement certifies that they have been cooperative. This new version of VAWA seeks to renew this very successful program, at the request of law enforcement agencies and advocates across the country.

Finally, the bill would increase access to justice for Native women living on tribal lands. The numbers are stunning. Native women are 2.5 times more likely than other U.S. women to be battered or raped. One-third of Native women will be raped in their lifetimes. Two-fifths will experience the tragedy of domestic violence. And, their legal situation greatly complicates their access to justice. Currently, criminal authority is limited to federal law enforcement agencies that can only prosecute misdemeanor crimes by non-Indians against Indians on tribal land. Sadly, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse and related matters that occurred in Indian country from 2005-2009. VAWA reauthorization would give tribes the authority to prosecute misdemeanor domestic violence-related crimes when the abuser lives or works in the jurisdiction of the tribe, or is the spouse or intimate partner of a tribe member. It is time to close the gaps in the law to ensure that rapists and abusers cannot commit crimes against Native women with impunity.

Reauthorization of VAWA is imperative. The costs to victims and their families and to society are too large to ignore. Opponents of VAWA are trying to make its renewal part of an ongoing culture war in which the needs of women have been buried in an avalanche of rhetoric that devalues women's lives in the service of an ideological, partisan agenda. VAWA is the product of an era of bipartisan cooperation in which combating violence against women was a consensus position. That cooperation must be restored -- women's lives depend on it.

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