Congressional Foot Dragging Leaves Violence Against Women Act in Limbo


By Sherry Lear

Editor’s note:  Sherry Lear is an attorney and resident of San Pedro.  She serves on Janice Hahn’s Advisory Council on Women’s Issues and is Los Angeles co-chairwoman of Miss R*EVOLutionaries, a California-based women’s rights group.  This grassroots organization was launched with the April 28, 2012 nationwide rallies for “Unite Against the War on Women.”

As I write this piece, the United States Congress has yet to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The VAWA was first passed in 1994 through bipartisan efforts to provide a comprehensive scheme of federal legislation designed to address the pervasiveness of sex-based violence in our country. Since its original passage, the VAWA has been reauthorized twice through bipartisan efforts of Congress, on each occasion, with new provisions expanding the protections and effectiveness of the act.

Notably, the Senate has already passed SR1925, a reauthorization of the VAWA, which was carefully and thoughtfully drafted with expanded provisions based upon detailed recommendations by advocates, service professionals and law enforcement. By all accounts, the VAWA has been extremely successful. VAWA-funded programs have improved the response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, have resulted in more victims coming forward and receiving lifesaving services, improved the ability for the criminal justice system to prosecute perpetrators and keep victims safe, and also resulted in monetary savings across the country.

SR1925 builds on this success by including several important changes.  Statistical data shows that while members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community suffer from domestic violence at the same rate as the heterosexual population, this group is underserved, with half of all lesbians being turned away from domestic violence shelters.  SR1925 makes it clear that all victims, LGBTQ included, are subject to its protections and can be the beneficiaries of program funds.

Similarly, SB1925 addresses the pervasiveness of sex-based violence in Native American communities. Native women living on reservations face 2.5 times the rate of sexual violence than other Americans. Since tribes are sovereign nations, tribal lands are not under the criminal jurisdiction of state courts. Instead, tribes operate their own court systems to prosecute crimes committed by their own members on reservation land.  Under the current status of the law, tribes are not allowed to prosecute non-natives or members of different tribes for reservation-based crimes.  SR1925 provides for a limited exception so that tribal courts may prosecute all perpetrators of sex-based crimes, while requiring tribal courts provide the same constitutional protections afforded defendants in state criminal courts. This provision is one that has been welcomed by Native communities as it will save lives – murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women.  SR1925 also continues protection in place for abused immigrant and undocumented women since the VAWA was originally passed in 1994.

SR1925 sounds like a no-brainer.  It not only expands protections and effectiveness, but manages to do so with a 20 percent decrease in funding. Unfortunately, in yet another example of partisan gridlock, members of the GOP majority in the House of Representatives decided to present a competing, watered-down version of the VAWA. With the help of 17 GOP members from California, the House passed HR4970, which rolls back existing protection for victims, excludes the LGBTQ community, denies expanded protection for Native women abused by non-Natives and strips away identity protection provisions from undocumented immigrants who report domestic abuse.  HR4970 would also further cut funding for important programs.

This leaves two competing versions of the VAWA within Congress, only one can be signed into law.

In a few short weeks, Congress will go on summer recess, and return briefly in October before closing out the 2012 legislative session. While we have seen the proposal of hundreds of laws designed to limit access to abortion and contraception, the physical safety and very lives of women should never be a political bargaining chip. It is imperative that the VAWA be reauthorized but not in some watered down version which limits protections for certain classes of victims.  As I noted, 17 of the GOP Representatives who want to limit the VAWA are from right here in California, including Darrell Issa, Dan Lungren and Mary Bono Mack, with many from Orange County and the San Diego area as well.

While VAWA programs have greatly enhanced systemic changes to meet the needs of victims and have saved countless lives, overwhelming needs remain. In the United States, 3 women die from domestic violence every day and 25 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys are victims of sexual abuse.

Lives are at stake.

If you agree that this is an outrage and the VAWA needs to be reauthorized immediately, then please contact your representative now, especially if he (and in one case, she) is one of the 17 who voted for HR4970, and even if not, to urge that the House put up SR1925 for an immediate vote and pass it.

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