The Violence Against Women Act, which funds responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking, has been on life support for the past month and half. When the law expired at the end of September, Congress temporarily extended it until Dec. 7, but if legislators don’t act fast, essential protections for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault will be cut.
Most domestic violence shelters are funded through city, state and federal dollars, and with projected budget cuts on all three levels of government, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault could be deprived of the support they need to escape and heal.
The Violence Against Women Act — known as VAWA — was enacted in 1994, and then-Sen. Joe Biden has said the Anita Hill hearings that led to Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court led him to draft the law. It has since helped protect millions of survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.
While Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a measure to reauthorize VAWA back in July, there was not a single Republican co-sponsor by the time it expired, nor any movement on the reauthorization, although nearly 50 House Republicans urged their leader, Speaker Paul Ryan, in September to make sure that the law is renewed. A spokesperson for Jackson Lee says the congresswoman is hoping to attach the reauthorization to another measure that Congress has to pass, like funding for continuing government operations, before the end of the year. Otherwise, she will try again next year.
In a letter to members of Congress earlier this year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “The continued refusal over many years of House Republicans to extend VAWA’s critical protections to include vulnerable communities, particularly Native American, immigrant and LGBTQ communities, represents a blatant dereliction of that duty.”
There have been indications that at least some Republicans are concerned that an addition to the bill that would take away the right of abusive partners named in a protective order to own a firearm. However, nearly half of women killed by intimate partners are killed by dating partners, and 20 percent of homicide victims with temporary protective orders were murdered within two days of obtaining the order. This addition to the bill would save lives and keep guns out of dangerous abuser’s hands.
Not only does VAWA provide crucial grant funding for myriad domestic violence shelter and confidential housing programs, it also works to train police officers on how to effectively respond to domestic violence, protects undocumented survivors, and funds prevention programs for youth-dating violence and sexual assault. VAWA protects victims of sex trafficking, and is responsible for the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It provides greatly needed legal support for survivors as they face a court system that does not believe women were abused if they don’t have the proof of scars. In a country where nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, and countless others are emotionally abused, the lapse of VAWA is a crisis.
What does this mean for survivors? At a domestic violence shelter where I work, we receive up to 20 calls a day from parents seeking to escape violent relationships. We are always at capacity. Because of budget cuts, we are one of the few confidential shelters left in the region.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “on a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.” Locally, the 2019 city budget proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan could cut legal services for sexual assault survivors — funding that supports consultations and representation for protection orders, immigration, criminal and Title IX cases for approximately 100 survivors. And losing this federal legislation would mean survivors would likely lose access to the crucial support services and housing necessary for a safe escape.
Without VAWA funding, the mothers I work with would have no support to leave, which is when abusers become most lethal. One woman, I’ll call her Mia, came to the shelter after being a victim of sex trafficking from an East Asian country. She was 18, and was sold into sex trafficking by a family member before being abused by a man who claimed to want to help her out of “the life.” She had to jump out of a window with her young son to escape. As an undocumented immigrant who spoke little English, Mia faced extreme difficulty navigating the criminal-justice, health-care and immigration systems.
Advocates from the shelter and myriad other social services agencies provided wraparound support for her to get cleared from criminal sex work charges, maintain custody of her son despite strategic attempts from her abuser to gain custody, allowed her access health care, and helped her to apply for citizenship. Under VAWA, undocumented immigrants like Mia who suffer from various forms of abuse can self-petition for legal protections and protection through citizenship. Without VAWA, this innocent survivor of sex trafficking and domestic violence would have had virtually no support for her and her young son.
Interpersonal violence thrives in isolation. Without fighting for VAWA reinstatement to fund escape routes through social services and hotlines, we are consenting that violence against women is acceptable. Interpersonal violence, regardless of gender identity, is unacceptable. In the midst of #MeToo and #IBelieveHer, it is time to do better by our women and our world.