Shameful: Republicans block renewal of the Violence Against Women Act

It should have been a bipartisan no-brainer, something that politicians from all sides could unite around when there is so much else on the political agenda that is a source of division.

After all, it had spent eighteen years on the statute book with support from both the GOP and the Democrats. Indeed, when it was renewed in 2005, it passed the House of Representatives 415-4 and served as a legislative beacon in the civilised world of the real difference law-makers can have on the lives of the vulnerable and damaged.

Yet, this week, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives refused to take up the bipartisan Senate renewal bill S.1925 and its proposed revisions and so, for the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is no longer on the statute book. Stop Street Harassment and other bloggers have reacted with understandable fury.

So what did the Violence Against Women Act do?

It wasn’t some wishy-washy social liberal piece of over-regulation. It was making a real difference to the lives of people that otherwise would have suffered silently, unable to seek redress against those that abused them. The Hotline, the national domestic violence hotline website, is clear about the progress that the Violence Against Women Act achieved in tackling domestic violence and other violence against women:

VAWA 1994 – Congress, in passing VAWA 1994, envisioned a nation with an engaged criminal justice system and coordinated community responses. VAWA 1994 fostered:

  • Community-coordinated responses that brought together, for the first time, the criminal justice system, the social services system, and private nonprofit organizations responding to domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Recognition and support for the efforts of domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and other community organizations nationwide working everyday to end this violence
  • Federal prosecution of interstate domestic violence and sexual assault crimes
  • Federal guarantees of interstate enforcement of protection orders
  • Protections for battered immigrants
  • A new focus on underserved populations and Native victims of domestic violence and sexual assault

VAWA 2000 – Congress improved on the foundation established in VAWA 1994, including:

  • Identifying the additional related crimes of dating violence and stalking
  • The creation of a much-needed legal assistance program for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Promoting supervised visitation programs for families experiencing violence
  • Further protecting immigrants experiencing domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking, by establishing U- and T-visas and by focusing on trafficking of persons

VAWA 2005 – Congress took a more holistic approach to addressing violence against women. In addition to enhancing criminal and civil justice and community-based responses to violence, VAWA 2005 created notable new focus areas such as:

  • Containing provisions that exclusively serve to protect immigrant victims of domestic violence but also include immigration protections to alleviate violence against immigrant women that previous legislation had tried, but failed to alleviate
  • Developing prevention strategies to stop violence before it starts
  • Protecting individuals from unfair eviction due to their status as victims  of domestic violence or stalking
  • Creating the first federal funding stream to support rape crisis centers
  • Developing culturally-and linguistically-specific services for communities
  • Enhancing programs and services for victims with disabilities
  • Broadening VAWA service provisions to include children and teenagers

So what was it about the Senate bill, proposed in April 2012 by senators Pat Leahy (Democrat) and Mike Crapo (Republican) and approved by the Senate by 68 votes to 31, that was so objectionable? It ensured that there was proper protection for immigrants, LGBT communities and Native Americans. Clearly, this is something that the majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives found objectionable and so they introduced their own bill,  H.R. 4970, which gutted the Senate bill of those provisions – even though the President had already indicated he would veto it for its inadequacies. Congressman Michael E. Capuano (Democrat) has a simple yet devastating summary of H.R. 4970’s weaknesses on his home page:

Among other provisions, the 1994 VAWA allowed immigrants who were being abused to petition for their own independent legal status. This part of the law protected individuals who were living in the country legally as the spouse of a citizen or a lawful permanent resident. It gave them the ability to report the abuse and remove themselves from a dangerous environment without fear of deportation.

H.R. 4970 weakens that provision in an important way. It eliminates a requirement that abuser-provided testimony or evidence be corroborated before denying a petition for independent legal status. What does this mean? Currently, abusers who deny that they are inflicting harm must submit some evidence that they are actually telling the truth – testimony from a family member, counselor or law enforcement personnel, something besides their own statement.

H.R. 4970 rolls back that provision. Instead of requiring some supporting evidence, this bill simply requires that the word of the alleged abuser be weighed against the word of the abused. Just on the basis of that, a petition for independent legal status can be denied. I want to be very clear; this has nothing to do with illegal immigration. Anyone covered by this provision is already here legally. There is no credible reason to weaken a part of the law that has been in place since 1994.

H.R. 4970 does not include provisions that would protect Native Americans who are being abused. Currently more than 50% of all Native American women are either married to or living with someone who is not a Native American. However, tribal courts do not have the authority to pursue charges against non-Native Americans. Instead, someone who is abused is forced to seek help through federal or state law enforcement. That help is all too often located hours away, creating a barrier when it comes to reporting abuse. The Senate bill would simply have given tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Native Americans who are accused of domestic violence against Native Americans.

H.R. 4970 also fails to adequately protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) victims. It does not include Senate-passed provisions that would prohibit VAWA-funded programs from discriminating based on sexual orientation. And it doesn’t add LGBT victims to the STOP Grant program, which funds domestic violence support initiatives. Studies have shown that members of the LGBT community do face discrimination when seeking services, including being turned away from domestic violence shelters. These provisions are simply about equality. Sexual orientation shouldn’t matter. Abuse is abuse and help should be there for everyone who needs it.

Over 100 organizations oppose the House version, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Women’s Law Center, the American Bar Association, the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Congress of American Indians. I voted NO.

The debate on House Resolution 656 of 12th May 2012, seeking to authorise H.R. 4970, makes for depressing reading and gives a clear indication of the ideological divide that has led to the politicisation of an issue that should unite politicians, not divide them. In the words of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke:

This egregious bill is another example of this Republican-led Congress waging political warfare on women.

H.R. 4970 would roll back years of progress and bipartisan commitment on the part of Congress to protect vulnerable immigrant victims of domestic violence, stalking, sex crimes, other serious crimes, and trafficking. Choosing one type of victim over the other.

So the Violence Against Women Act has expired. The Senate Bill attempting to renew it with necessary extensions has been abandoned. And, rightly, the Republican-gutted substitute will go nowhere.

In the end though, whilst politicians wrangle, it is the victims of domestic and sexual violence who will suffer.

And for those of us across the Atlantic, who often see our cousins leading where in a few years’ time we follow, we should pay particular attention to the societal signals that this determination to put ideological considerations above the safety of women and communities sends us. Rather, we should be relentless in our desire to work across the political divide to tackle violence against women and recognise that by prioritising spending and political attention in this area all of society benefits.

To do otherwise is shameful.

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