Protections for Native Americans and members of the LGBTQ community were removed from the proposed bill last week. Congress could make campuses safer by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA. Since it was first passed in 1994, VAWA has been one of the most critical, effective and life-saving tools in the fight to end sexual assault and dating violence. It has always received vast bipartisan support, as it did when it was passed in the Senate last year with 68 Senators supporting it. But somehow, despite intense negotiations in December, the 112th Congress was not able to pass a final VAWA before the Congressional session ended on January 1st. This is unacceptable. Every day that the 113th Congress fails to pass a VAWA that protects all victims, more and more young people will suffer from dating violence and more students will feel unsafe on their own campuses.
Domestic violence is one of the most common forms of violence endured by women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one-fourth of U.S. women will endure an abusive relationship, while some 1,300 people are killed each year by intimate partners. Thankfully, we have come a long way since the 1970s, when laws did not directly prohibit domestic violence, police often failed to respond, and few resources were available to victims. Yet we stand at the brink of losing much of that progress if Congress does not act now to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
First enacted in 1994, VAWA was the first federal legislation to acknowledge domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes. It provides federal resources to encourage community-coordinated responses to address these issues, including support for victim services and training of law enforcement. In 2000, VAWA was reauthorized and included several new provisions, including legal assistance for victims, expansion of the definition of the crimes to cover dating violence and stalking, attention on trafficking of persons and assistance to trafficking victims.
Another reauthorization occurred in 2005, which added new provisions specifically aimed at helping immigrant victims. It allows undocumented immigrant victims who have endured abuse at the hands of an intimate partner to self-petition for residency status. This critical provision was incorporated because many times abusers bring victims to the U.S. and promise to complete the required paperwork yet instead use their victim’s status as yet another tool of power and control. These victims often remain in dangerous situations out of fear of deportation or loss of child custody. The self-petition provision of VAWA lets these victims obtain documentation that allows them to legally drive and work. Given that many victims stay with abusers because they cannot financially support themselves, the ability to drive and work means these women and men can be independent.
Despite its name, the provisions of VAWA help men, women and children. Administered by the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), an estimated 250,000 victims are served annually through VAWA.
VAWA works, according to advocates in the field. The White House notes that the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which was established through the VAWA, has received over three million calls, with more than 22,000 each month. For 92 percent of callers, it is the first time they have called anyone for help. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 1994 and 2010, rates of intimate partner violence decreased 64 percent.
The time is now. Congress is debating VAWA and despite widespread support some still oppose it. Opposition rests largely on the fact that VAWA provides assistance to undocumented immigrants and to Native Americans and LGBT persons.
This partisan squabbling is appalling in so many ways, not least of which is the fact that failing to reauthorize VAWA is a huge step back, a return to times when victims had little choice but to endure their partners’ violence.
This is an opportunity for Congress to promote justice-for victims and for communities.