Time is running out on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Set to expire at the end of December, VAWA might become the second social-legislation casualty of a lame-duck session in which Republicans seem hell bent on sending a final-hour poke in the eye to women, minorities, and the disabled. And what is it they’re trying to tell us? First, that they don’t give a damn about the majority who clearly expressed broad-based opposition to Republican governance by returning President Obama to the White House and increasing the Democratic majority in the Senate. Second, that in the House they’ll fight to the last to prevent expansion of programs and protections against domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking to communities whose lifestyles they reject or prefer to ignore.
(Not to be outdone by the stonewalling of their colleagues in the lower chamber, Senate Republicans shamed themselves and damaged American leadership on human rights by recently voting down ratification of a U.N. treaty that would have expanded the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to nations and individuals around the world.)
Bipartisanship gets left behind
Historically VAWA has not been controversial. Originally drafted by Senator Joe Biden and passed into law in 1994 with bipartisan support, the bill easily passed reauthorization with little or no opposition in 2000 and 2006.
This past April reauthorization of the bill, including an expansion of provisions covering the LGBT community, Native Americans, and undocumented immigrants, passed the Senate, again with broad, bipartisan support. Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, best summed up the case for benefit expansion: “Where a person lives, who they love, or what their citizenship status may be should not determine whether or not their perpetrators are brought to justice.” By the time the 68-to-31 tally was complete, every Republican female senator had the decency to vote her conscience and joined Democrats in assuring all victims of abuse and violence that they will receive the legal support and services they need.
The story couldn’t be more different in the House. On a near party-line vote, the Senate’s expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act failed to gain reauthorization. What is it that’s ruffling the feathers of Republican male members of the House? What is comes down to is that Republicans have decided to defend their right to exclude LGBT individuals, undocumented immigrants, and Native Americans from legal protections and support services that have proven effective for countless women and men.
Worse yet, House Republicans chose to ignore the more than three hundred national organizations, including faith-based groups and others spanning the political and ideological spectrum, which lobbied passionately for passage of the Senate version. In May, the Republican caucus proposed its own version that passed on a near party-line vote. According to reporting in the Huffington Post, the House bill “discourages undocumented immigrant women from reporting abuse without the threat of being deported. It also makes it harder for Native American women to seek justice against their abusers, and it leaves out protections for the LGBT community altogether.”
Obama gets tough
The truncated House version prompted a vow by President Obama to veto any bill that excludes expanded coverage. The president knows full well what’s at stake. He and compassionate members of Congress know that we cannot in good conscience ignore the horrifying statistics. Every twelve seconds –in less time than it takes to read this paragraph—another woman somewhere in this country is physically abused by the man who professes to love her. Every two minutes, a woman is traumatized by the violence of rape. Every day three women are killed by their abusive husbands or partners.
Once again, House Republicans are playing a high stakes game with other people’s lives. If the Senate and House versions of the Violence Against Women Act cannot be reconciled, continued allocation of taxpayer dollars to set up and support programs and services for those who have suffered abuse will be in jeopardy. Those services include community-based violence-prevention programs, rape crisis centers and hotlines, and legal aid for survivors of violence, as well as funds to enable investigations and prosecutions of violent crimes against women.
Programs that work
To the peril of the abused, House Republicans have chosen to ignore that this is one government program that’s yielded extraordinary results. Since 2000 the outcomes of having programs and services in place have been dramatic. Nonfatal partner violence against women has decreased by 53 percent. The number of individuals killed by intimate partners has decreased by 34 percent for women and 57 percent for men.
House Republicans justify their opposition by arguing that Native American women and the LGBT community are not experiencing equally high rates of violence and abuse and, therefore, do not require coverage. This argument is so devoid of statistical confirmation that it seems that what they actually believe is that those communities do not deserve the same protections.
Debunking myths about Native Americans and the LGBT community
Senator Max Baucus of Montana is one senator who knows first-hand the speciousness of these Republican talking points. Baucus tried nobly to educate his colleagues about the epidemic of violence and abuse of Native American women and their desperate need for expanded protections and services in his state and across Native American lands.
This year’s reauthorization strengthens the legislation by specifically addressing the crisis of violence against women in tribal communities who face extremely high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. It fixes the patchwork of criminal jurisdiction over those who assault Indian spouses and dating partners in Indian Country, toughens up assault statutes, improves grant programs, and clarifies jurisdiction for civil protection orders.
The bill also consolidates 13 existing programs into four. This helps reduce administrative costs and adds efficiency in getting resources to law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim service providers.
Not surprisingly, another bone in Republicans’ throats is the provision for providing effective services to the LGBT community. Contrary to Republican claims, the facts show that the LGBT community experiences domestic and sexual violence and stalking and dating violence at approximately the same rate as non–LGBT victims. Most disturbingly, LGBT victims often are denied services altogether. According to a 2010 survey, nearly fifty-five percent of LGBT individuals who sought protection orders were denied. Where services are made available, many providers lack the training and resources to assist effectively with the unique needs of LGBT victims.
For those of us who long for the safety of ourselves, our daughters, our mothers, our sisters, and our friends (both male and female), we share the exasperation of now–Vice President Joe Biden. Joe doesn’t mince words nor does he hide his disdain for the shameful indifference and political charade of Republicans. Joe certainly speaks for us when he says, “the idea that we’re still fighting about this [VAWA] in the Congress, that this is even a debatable issue, is truly sad.”
Renee Shur lives and works in New York’s Hudson Valley.