A law that's been on the books for nearly two decades and was twice reauthorized by Congress with little debate has suddenly become a hot button issue in this election year.
Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted on a version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that was weakened because of what was left out or eliminated from the previously authorized version -- specific protections for immigrants, Native Americans, and LGBT victims of sexual and domestic violence. These protections exist in the VAWA version passed by the Senate, and now a compromise version of the bill will have to be agreed upon by two political bodies controlled by opposing political parties.
Is VAWA being butchered because it's Joe Biden's baby?
When Biden laid the groundwork years ago, he was a senator from Delaware who successfully put together legislation and funding to support battered women's shelters and train law enforcement to handle domestic violence situations. These efforts led to the passage of VAWA in 1994. It's universally recognized as a landmark piece of legislation that did more to advance anti-domestic violence advocacy in the U.S. than anything before it. It's always been deemed a worthy cause and has always passed when it has come up for reauthorization in years past.
But not this year. While VAWA has continually evolved and changed to meet the specific needs of domestic and/or sexual violence victims, the GOP has said no to recommended updates to VAWA which either add to or reinforce existing protections for three populations at high risk of abuse:
- Native Americans
- the LGBT community
With regard to immigrants, a Los Angeles Times editorial notes that the House version of VAWA actually strips away existing VAWA protections by removing a confidentiality clause and eliminating U visas:
[Curently] if an immigrant married to a U.S. citizen or a green-card holder -- and therefore eligible to stay in the country permanently -- can show evidence of abuse, he or she may file independently without having to rely on the abusive spouse. VAWA's gender-neutral protections apply to legal and illegal immigrants and allow the victim to file confidentially.
Confidentiality is crucial....without such guarantees, an abuser could try to derail a spouse's green-card application or push to have him or her deported. A battered woman whose application depends on her abusive husband certainly might think twice about filing if she knew her abuser would be notified that she was seeking help without him.
Eliminating the confidentiality provision is one of several changes House Republicans...[made] to weaken the law. They argue that the changes are necessary to combat fraud, in which immigrants falsely claim to have been abused in order to obtain visas. But where are the data and studies that indicate that fraud is a problem?...
The House reauthorization bill also seeks to undercut a provision that allows undocumented immigrants who assist in prosecutions of serious crimes to apply for U visas, and ultimately obtain green cards. The proposed changes would allow victims to obtain temporary visas only....U visas help protect American citizens too, by encouraging witnesses to step forward without fear of deportation. That's why the program enjoys the backing of many law enforcement groups.
A similarly disturbing elimination of protections for Native Americans by the House version ignores a horrific epidemic that's sweeping across tribal lands -- the rape of Native American women and girls by non-native perpetrators who get away with the crime because tribal law enforcement has no jurisdiction outside tribal lands. According to media network Indian Country:
[F]ederal statistics indicate that Native women are battered, raped, and stalked at far greater rates than any other population of women in the United States. The data indicates that 34 percent of Native women will be raped in their lifetimes and 39 percent will be the victim of domestic violence.
The Senate version extends tribal court jurisdiction over non-Indian domestic violence offenders, allows for tribal protection orders involving "any person," including non-Indian offenders, and strengthens federal authority to address violent felonies on reservations. None of these protections exist in the House version.
Finally, the House version contains none of the Senate's protections for women in the LGBT community, one of the groups at highest risk. Writing for the Washington Post, Suzy Khimm notes:
The rate of domestic violence among LGBT couples is about the same as for heterosexual ones -- an estimated 25 to 33 percent experience abuse in their lifetimes, according to National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. But LGBT victims are significantly less likely to seek out help: 45 percent of them have been turned away from domestic violence shelters, and only 7 percent call the police after an incident of domestic violence. LGBT women are particularly at risk: they're victims of the majority of murders related to domestic violence in the gay community, the coalition says....
[T]he Senate bill....includes earmarked funding for community organizations that serve LGBT victims, a prohibition against LGBT discrimination by law enforcement and domestic-violence shelters, and an explicit allowance for states to use federal money to help LGBT victims.
Right now, only 24 states currently take advantage of federal funding to support LGBT-specific anti-violence programs, according to Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which provides counseling, education, and support for LGBT victims. "If you are in a violent relationship and need somewhere to go, it's critical we have these services available in every state," Stapel says.
Not only are the disenfranchised losing out in this ridiculous display of political game-playing, but even those with a measure of power find their voices being ignored.
I found myself near tears as I watched Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) standing before the House, describing her own personal trauma as a victim of rape in order to give weight to her words in opposition to the weakened House VAWA bill. Twenty years before VAWA became law, she'd gone for a ride with "a guy I thought was a friend" who ended up raping and nearly choking her to death. When her case went to court, she described how she was made to feel on trial and why her abuser walked free. VAWA was created to give law enforcement the training and tools to make sure this sort of thing didn't happen to other women, Moore noted, adding that if the proposed House version passed, it would fly in the face of the recommendation of experts:
As a woman of color, I am particularly aggrieved that this bill ignores the special circumstances of women who are minorities, women who are in the shadows, and that we have created a veritable sanctuary for those who would commit sexual assault and abuse them...
What male Representative would ever stand before Congress and tell such a deeply painful story? None...because most are men of privilege and will never experience these degradations.
It's almost a moot point whether a "War on Women" is taking place because something just as bad is happening -- a war on effective long-standing legislation that does what it's supposed to do but just happens to have been crafted by a man who's now vice president and running for re-election under a president the GOP despises.
The GOP has lost its way. It was more progressive 90 years ago when it truly was the Grand Old Party for its support of the suffragist movement and the 19th Amendment.
Republicans, look to your history books and see how you promoted women's rights in a meaningful way. At the time, you were forward-thinking and interested in issues greater than getting your candidates into public office. But you've squandered that legacy and VAWA is only the most recent example of how far you've fallen.
If you want the support of women, extend that same support to us instead of slapping us down at every turn. Stop throwing women under the bus merely to make a point.
I can't say it any better than the LA Times did in its editorial: "Helping battered women is more important than political gains."