Violence Against Women Act Made Big Strides, But What's Next?

The vote by Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Thursday is a major step forward for women’s human rights. While the VAWA has been law since 1994, the reauthorization expands protections for Native American women, immigrant women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community—a key victory toward ending violence against all women.

Although Native American and Alaska Native women experience sexual violence at a much higher rate than other women in the United States—two and a half times higher—and although Department of Justice studies show that 86 percent of perpetrators are non-Native men, tribal authorities had had no jurisdiction to prosecute and mete out justice.

The VAWA reauthorization on Thursday changes that. The legislation restores tribal criminal jurisdiction over all persons committing domestic violence, dating violence, and violation of protection orders within Indian country, a critical step for Native women seeking justice. The new tribal provisions of VAWA also clarify tribal courts’ ability to issue protective orders.

In Maze of Injustice, a groundbreaking 2007 report, Amnesty International exposed the human rights crisis of sexual violence in Indian country. Native women face complex jurisdictional issues that make protection, reporting and prosecution of crimes of violence nearly impossible. Imagine calling the police to report domestic violence and having them tell you, “We don’t have jurisdiction, sorry.”

Abusers exploit these loopholes. In a recent Associated Press article, Diane Millich recounted her story of domestic violence by her husband:

Once, Diane said, her husband called the county sheriff himself “to show me that no one could stop him,” and indeed, two deputies came to their home and confirmed that they did not have jurisdiction to arrest him.

But this will no longer be true. The new tribal provisions in VAWA will help end impunity for violence and help Native American women access protective services and justice.

In addition to the critical new provisions for indigenous women, and expanded protections for immigrant women, new non-discrimination provisions in VAWA will also help ensure that LGBT survivors of violence, who often face discrimination based upon their sexual orientation and gender identity, are able to access life-saving support services.

The Violence Against Women Act has made a real difference in the lives and safety of women and girls. Its expansion is cause for celebration. Now we must act to see progress on this issue across the board.

First among these must be to end, once and for all, the complicated maze of legal issues that allows sexual violence against indigenous women to continue unabated. Congress must now act swiftly to give tribal authorities concurrent jurisdiction over all crimes committed on tribal land.