Here’s a description of women and girls affected by sexual and domestic violence.
Republican. Democrat. African-American. White. Latina. Asian. Native American. Jewish. Christian. Muslim. Transgender. Lesbian. Straight. Rich. Working-class. Teenage. Elderly. Middle-aged. Native born. Immigrant.
In short, this is not a partisan issue. Yet the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is set to expire December 7 without, for the first time since its passage, a single Republican co-sponsor for its reauthorization.
While a failure to meet that looming deadline does not mean the funding would disappear instantly, the money would dry up eventually, hindering efforts to strengthen existing programs and create new policies designed to help survivors and eradicate domestic violence.
VAWA “has brought a tremendous amount of attention to the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Maureen Gallagher, policy director at Jane Doe Inc., a statewide anti-sexual and domestic violence organization. “The funding that does come to states helps support the work of community-based rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs. If that were to go away, it would be really devastating.”
This year, Massachusetts has received more than $12 million from the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women.
Of course, violence against women isn’t only a statewide or national problem. It’s a global epidemic. A recent United Nations study on “gender-related” killings of women and girls confirmed what many already knew, or at least suspected. Worldwide, more than 87,000 women and girls were victims of intentional homicide last year; 58 percent were killed by current or former intimate partners or family members.
In this country, 55 percent of murdered women die by “intimate partner-related violence,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
First introduced in 1990 by Joe Biden, then a Delaware senator, VAWA was signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton as part of his still-controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Since then, each reauthorization seeks changes to meet the evolving needs of survivors, Gallagher said.
“We have an opportunity every five years to say, ‘What have we learned, what’s not working, where have we missed the mark,’” she said. “We’ve been able to seek greater support for immigrant survivors, and access to support when folks who have experienced violence may have issues with documentation. We’ve been able to lift up LGBTQ survivors and Native survivors in different ways that bring more consciousness to the idea that there’s not just one way to support survivors.”
It’s those broadening changes that GOP legislators reject. The 2013 reauthorization passed, but not without a protracted fight over policies to allow Native American authorities to prosecute cases, including against non-Indians, on reservations. One stumbling block this time is granting law enforcement more leeway to take firearms from abusers. We know that the GOP is no more likely to thwart the NRA than it is to put a liberal on the Supreme Court.
Such opposition flies in the face of the facts — more than half of domestic violence victims are murdered with guns.
VAWA advocates and abuse survivors can expect little assistance from the White House. From the infamous “Access Hollywood” audio tape to his mocking of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice, of sexual assault, President Trump is openly hostile toward women and their safety. We saw that again recently when his administration announced that deportation proceedings could begin against immigrant survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking.
It’s a draconian act that may deliver women back to their abusers and, ultimately, to their deaths.
If Congress ever decides to address the reauthorization, it may take the path of least resistance — re-upping the law as it was passed in 2013. While it’s better than indefinite inaction, advocates fear it won’t have the full impact necessary to meet the changing needs of survivors.
“From an increased investment in sexual violence prevention programs, to provisions to hold offenders accountable on tribal lands, to efforts to make our criminal justice system more responsive to survivors, to updated definitions to protections for incarcerated survivors, this legislation includes the realistic enhancements survivors need and advocates have asked for,” said Debra J. Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc.
So for now, the wait continues. Even in these polarizing times, there should be no debate about the impact of sexual and domestic violence, not just on victims, but families and communities. Like opioids, this is an epidemic that’s killing people every day, and it’s far from anything approaching containment. VAWA saves lives, and its reauthorization is a vote for humanity over petty partisan politics.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.