Let’s Get ‘Er Done: The Violence Against Women Act

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In 1994 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to facilitate programs that reduce and prevent crimes associated with domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  Since the passage of VAWA, the rate of intimate partner violence has declined by 67%.  However, in September of 2011, the VAWA was allowed to expire for the first time in its 18-year history.  Why?  A disagreement in the House (a Senate bill has already passed) between Democrats and Republicans over an expansion of the law’s protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, undocumented immigrants, and Native American women.

Democrats proposed these expansions to address abuse in populations that are overlooked or abandoned.  Republicans believe the Democrats are engaging in “mission creep,” unnecessarily duplicating coverage from other laws and grants, and giving too much power to the federal government.  In other words, this fight is just like most fights between the two parties, boiling down to a difference in perspective about where power should reside.  But in this case, leaving the power where it is encourages abusers and leaves victims to fend for themselves.

To illustrate this point, let’s examine one of the expansions:  a provision that would allow tribal courts limited power to adjudicate assaults on Native American women by non-Native men on tribal lands.  Democrats proposed this provision because federal and state law enforcement currently have the power of adjudication in such cases, but in reality don’t have the resources to respond.  As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) puts it, this state of affairs means that non-Native American men who abuse Native American women on tribal lands are essentially “immune from the law, and they know it.”  (Quotation taken from a HuffPo article by Jennifer Benderery.)

Ah, there is the crux of it.

It’s a very old story in indeed.  A non-Native man rapes a Native woman on her land.  Her tribe—men and women—are powerless to bring justice against this man because he is not subject to their laws, only to his own.  And the powers that be just don’t have the time or money to deal with this rapist.

That’s the story in print, anyway.  The way it plays out in reality illustrates why the VAWA was necessary in the first place.  This part of the story rises to the surface here and there with increased frequency.  Recently, we have heard it in:

  • Dana Perino’s voice when she said that female victims of violence should make better decisions (which puts the onus of violence on the victim, rather than the perpetrator).
  • Representative Moran’s voice when he portrayed his son’s assault of his girlfriend as a “private matter.” All domestic violence is a public health issue, and needs to be viewed as a public, not a private, problem; this particular instance even happened in public, when the abuser fractured his victim’s skull by slamming in into a trashcan.
  • The ignorant rants of white men with power who keep saying that rape is acceptable in one form or another.

This part of the story says that women simply must deal with violence against them, and shut up about it.  This part of the story ignores the psychological aspect of abuse:  the insidious way it convinces you that you deserve it, and it deserves you.  This part of the story insists that a woman—or any victim of abuse—owns her abuse, but not the means to advocate for herself against her abuser.  And if the woman is non-white, and poor?  The messages are drummed into her soul a thousand times over, in a thousand ways:  they have been for centuries.

Consider again the groups that the new provisions would protect:  Native American women, members of the LGBT community, undocumented immigrants.  The arguments against this expansion invariably go to states’ rights versus federal power and express frustration at the notion that refusing to expand federal power—or transfer it where necessary—gives an advantage to abusers. What these arguments ignore is that power is as power does.  Without protection for the otherwise invisible, abusers will feel entitled.  Just look at Chris Brown—a more entitled abuser has never walked this earth, and his victim is far from invisible.

It’s time to pass the VAWA with the proposed expansions.  There is hope for such an outcome:  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is currently in talks with Joe Biden, who was a sponsor of the 1994 law and is a strong proponent of the current legislation.  While Cantor opposes the Native American provision, he is under pressure from his own party to pass an inclusive version of the bill before the end of the year; Ultraviolet has created a petition for support of the bill to keep the pressure on; and the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women is advocating phone calls to Speaker Boehner’s and Cantor’s offices.

Yes, this law is part of a very old story.  And it’s time to rewrite the ending.

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