Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on 2/13/13.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act has done tremendous good in stepping up prosecution of domestic violence, aiding victims and increasing awareness of a too-often silent threat to our society. But the act was allowed to lapse in 2011 amid partisan bickering. On Tuesday, the Senate sent a strong signal by voting to reauthorize the law by an overwhelming 78-22 vote, but its survival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is, sadly, far from certain.
VAWA, as the law is called, aids in the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and allows for civil redress in cases that prosecutors choose to leave unprosecuted. The act also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. The reauthorization approved by the Senate would provide $659 million over the next five years for VAWA programs.
This legislation has been important for women since the time of its enactment. After a large push in the late 1980s and early 1990s from advocates concerned with domestic and sexual violence, VAWA has been instrumental in helping to make crimes against women a priority for prosecutors. Over the years, VAWA has expanded its focus from solely domestic violence to also include dating violence and stalking. The bill includes funding for services to protect adult and teen victims, to support training on these issues, and to ensure official responses to violence across the country.
Additionally, VAWA has been vitally important to Native American women — one in three of them is a sexual violence survivor, and the murder rate for Native American women is a stunning 10 times higher than the national average.
But it is a provision dealing with the prosecution of abuse on Indian reservations that has proved one of the biggest obstacles to reauthorization. The Senate bill says that non-Native Americans accused of abusing Native American women on reservations can be tried in tribal courts; under current law, such cases are rarely prosecuted at all. But some Republicans have complained that those courts offer insufficient protections for the defendants’ constitutional rights. If that is the true complaint, the answer is to provide more resources for those courts, not to allow non-Native Americans to abuse Native American women with impunity.
The other objections to the bill are similarly hollow. Some Republicans are opposed to a provision that allows immigrant victims of abuse to gain permanent residency, on the assumption that some could manipulate the law to find a way to stay in this country. But the opposite risk — that an immigrant woman would stay in an abusive relationship to avoid the chance that she could be deported — is much greater. Some also oppose the bill’s nondiscrimination clause for gay, lesbian and transgender victims of abuse, but why should they be any less worthy of protection?
The bipartisan support for reauthorization in the Senate should give the bill momentum in the House, but we have been down this road before. In April, the Senate voted to reauthorize VAWA, and the House subsequently passed its own version that omitted provisions to protect gays and lesbians, Native Americans on reservations and immigrants. The White House threatened to veto the House bill, and both the House and Senate decided to restart when the 113th Congress convened.
The lead sponsor of the 2011 House legislation is no longer in office, and now Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, is working on a new version of the bill. There are some signs that Republicans are at least concerned with the politics of opposing this legislation. All 22 no votes in the Senate were cast by Republican men, which surely doesn’t help a party that was damaged last year by two Senate candidates’ retrograde views about rape and pregnancy — and which lost the women’s vote to President Barack Obama by 11 points in November. Indeed, a bloc of House Republicans has urged their leaders to bring the legislation to a vote.
But this should not be a partisan issue. As Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in arguing for the bill on the Senate floor, the Violence Against Women Act works. It protects the least powerful in society from crimes that, as Ms. Mikulski points out, often involve not just physical harm but also “deep emotional pain and fear.” The House needs to overcome its divisions and send this bill to the president to sign into law.