By Christine Miranda, Communications Intern
It’s not hard to put a face on VAWA. The Violence Against Women Act, since its initial passage in 1994, has saved lives and helped rescue women and girls (as well as men and boys). It has apportioned money for local programs, trained professionals in the complexities of domestic violence and sexual assault and started to finally hold perpetrators responsible. It has also failed countless victims.
Take your pick: students who feel compelled to abandon their college careers rather than see their rapists every day on campus; lesbian victims who are told not to speak out about their abuse and denied help when they do; Native American women who suffer the highest rates of sexual assault but face the most limitations when it comes to prosecuting their attackers.
Anti-violence legislation may never be perfect, and many of the neediest women will suffer without ever knowing what recourse the law guarantees them. That’s a tragedy. But when survivors, advocacy groups and legislators can pinpoint ways to expand legal protections and improve programs to those underserved populations, responsible lawmakers should follow through.
Fortunately, this April, 68 senators stepped up to the plate and did just that, passing a robust reauthorization of VAWA that improves services to LGBT, immigrant and Native American communities, not to mention college students and women of color. It was a good bill, but did not contain everything advocates said was needed to adequately protect violence survivors. Soon after, the conservative House leadership pushed through (by a narrow margin) an alternative VAWA bill that omits many of the newer provisons for underserved communities, introduces new obstacles for certain vulnerable women and even rolls back existing law and VAW programs.
Proponents of the House bill insist that it represents a “victim-centered” VAWA, but one of the most dangerous provisions disproves this claim. Something called a U visa currently exists to help immigrant women circumvent their abusive sponsors and stay in the country to assist law enforcement in bringing their attacker to justice. However, there is a yearly limit on the number of women who can access a U visa, and the small office that handles such visas is backlogged. The Senate’s response to the problem is to provide assistance to handle the backlog and to allow for an increase in the annual cap on applications (from 10,000 to 15,000) so long as there are unused visas from the past years’ allotments. The House’s response is to restructure the entire system, replace the highly-trained workers involved with this type of immigration and notify the sponsor/abuser when a victim files for self-petition. Or more bluntly: promptly alert perpetrators when their victims finally make the push to get away.
I think it goes without saying, but a reauthorization bill that places battered women at risk of violent retaliation is not a victim-centered VAWA.
And though for some people this isn’t crystal clear, a bill that continues to ignore the same women we have historically let suffer is not a victim-centered VAWA either. Rep. Sandy Adams, who introduced the weak reauthorization bill in the House and is herself a survivor of domestic violence, claims that the Senate improvements aren’t necessary because her law helps victims and, well, “a victim is a victim.”
The infuriating problem with this kind of thinking is that in the United States, some victims appear to be more deserving than others. All women deserve the same protections, and all survivors deserve the same services, but not all receive them. Until that happens, we do not have a victim-centered VAWA. We have a Violence Against White Heterosexual Women Who Don’t Get Too Uppity on College Campuses Act. And fixing that should be a top priority for all women and all people who care about women, both within and far beyond Washington.
*For those who want to do more reading on this issue, each word in the first sentence of this post is a different link.