Why We Need a New Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., right, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, talks about jobs and the
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., right, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, talks about jobs and the latest government report on unemployment, Friday, Feb. 3, 2012, during a news conference Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is still pending re-authorization in Congress. Both House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are getting pressure from within their own party to pass VAWA during the lame-duck session. It seems that an act aimed to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence would bring little controversy among Congress members, from either chambers. But no. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), for example, was quoted saying, "They [the Democrats] want us to work with them, and yet they'll turn right around, and change a program that's working very very well, just for political reasons. That's just ridiculous." Senator Hatch, along with then Senator Biden (D-Del), was one of the original co-sponsors of the 1994 law. Forward 18 years later, however, and many House Republicans refuse to extend protections to the LGBT community, undocumented immigrants, and Native Americans. The reason? Apparently, "the program is working very very well."

No, Senator Hatch, the system is not working entirely great. In fact, the system is dysfunctional and we are in dire need for new protections. Most of my work centers around domestic violence, and I can tell you from research and experience working with survivors and victims that we need the protections you so adamantly oppose. As for the undocumented population--I work with a number of survivors whose abusers threatened their spouses with withholding adjustment of their legal status. Moreover, these survivors cannot apply for public housing, seek a job, or gain access to basic services. Undocumented victims of domestic violence are often times afraid to report the abuse, thereby placing themselves and their children in serious danger. The bottom line: undocumented victims of domestic and sexual violence need better and more access to services. In an email, Michaela Moshier, legal specialist at HarborCOV wrote:

Although [the current] VAWA includes special provisions for immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, allowing many to apply for lawful status and work authorization, the majority of the undocumented survivors that work with us are unaware that such protections exist. Without access to information and legal resources, undocumented survivors continue to be vulnerable to threats of deportation and separation from their children. Increased VAWA funding for legal staffing, training for service providers and law enforcement officials, and public education efforts could all increase survivor access to these important protections.

As for the LGBT community, 25 to 33 percent of LGBT people experience domestic violence or partner abuse in their lifetimes, a rate that equals that of the general population. According to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, almost half of LGBT survivors are not given shelter at domestic violence centers and a fourth are mistakenly arrested as the aggressor by law enforcement. In addition, over 55 percent of LGBT survivors are denied orders of protection. The LGBT community, thus, needs that federal law ensures more services be directed for its protection. According to Curt Rogers, Executive Director of the Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project (GMDVP), "Currently under VAWA, GLBTQ victims of domestic violence and sexual assault do not have equal access to funding for services and the Act needs to be revised to include all victims. GLBTQ domestic violence organizations such as the GMDVP are currently prohibited from accessing VAWA STOP Grant funding because VAWA language stipulates that funding can only go to programs that 'primarily serve women.'" There exists, therefore, rampant misunderstanding about domestic violence within the LGBT community and the idea that the "program is working very very well" categorically denies access to services for some of the most vulnerable people.

Finally, we know that Indian women face rates of violent victimization more than double that of non-Indian women. We also know that tribal governments have no jurisdictional authority to prosecute non-Indian offenders, so many abusers go unpunished. Indian women, too, need more protections than the current system offers. Strong Oak, of the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition, had harsh words for those who neglect giving protections to Indian women:

Indigenous advocates carry guns to protect themselves from retaliation from offenders... [and] many women who report [their offenders] are murdered in the bush. There is little justice for American Indian women living on tribal lands. The jurisdiction confusion been tribal, state and federal laws furthers what amounts to a policy of genocide.

When asked about the reauthorization of VAWA, Maureen L. Gallagher, Policy Director Maureen L. Gallagher of Jane Doe Inc. The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, indicated:

It is reprehensible to deny access to services, supports and resources to victims who are LGBQ/T or Native American or undocumented immigrants as part of a political ploy. When the most vulnerable among us are unsafe, we are all unsafe.

The fact of the matter is that the reformulation and reauthorization of VAWA is not a political issue. Senator Hatch and House Republicans need to understand this is a human rights issue. This is an issue of safety and protection for literally millions of women and men experiencing abuse.