A BRIEF HISTORY OF VAWA

This afternoon, President Obama renewed the Violence Against Women Act.  I’m taking a brief pause from regular postings, to highlight the passage of this law in an effort to draw attention to this very important piece of legislation.

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Every day, important legislation gets proposed, debated and passed or rejected, stuck in committees, filibustered, etc.  and I’ve never felt confident that everyday people (like us!) are really able to comprehend the issues as quickly as they arise and begin rolling through the process. This is why we elect officials, sure, but it’s also why we replace them from time to time.

The Violence Against Women Act is a federal law aimed at ending violence against women, men and children and remedying the laws and social practices that have fostered and justified the history of violence against women (*). It was the first, federal comprehensive approach (*) originally drafted in 1994 by Vice President Joe Biden (then, Senator from Delaware) with support from several advocacy groups and is largely considered a bipartisan (or, both parties) effort.

It was originally passed as a part of the larger Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 – and was renewed in 2000 and 2005, and expired in 2011. At the time, it passed the House of Representatives 235-195, and the Senate 61-38. Essentially, it was just as controversial in 1994 as it is now, except now the advocacy groups are even louder.

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(Check out this website for interactive web versions of the original legislation, as well as the renewals in 2000 and 2005.)

Now, when it expired in 2011, the most recent debate really began to heat up, and brace yourselves, it’s a good one:

Why it’s important  >> Because it is!

There’s no doubt, if you’ve heard about this law at all, why it’s important is titularly clear, so I’ll pull this from AmericanBar.org: “For seventeen years, VAWA has provided life-saving assistants to hundreds of thousands of women, men and children who are victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking” (*)

I think there are a few key words in the statement above that I’ve noticed some people miss and/or don’t emphasize, and those words are “women, men and children” – this is a law that protects victims of violence, period. It’s so-called due to the fact that women are more likely to be victims. The Domestic Violence Resource Center reports that 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime (*), and while the White House reports that between 1993 and 2010 (seemingly due to VAWA) fewer people are experiencing domestic violence, the overwhelming fact that hasn’t changed since then is that most domestic violence incidents are never reported and every month the National Hotline for Domestic Violence receives an estimated 23,000 calls. So, providing resources for those women, men and children who are involved, is particularly important.

Why it’s controversial >> Well, several reasons.

I want to point out again, that this law is mostly bipartisan. There isn’t a lot of dissension but those who opposed the passage are loud. Additionally, they’re a little miffed at the name of the act because a vote of dissension appears, at least superficially, like a vote for violence against women instead of…a vote on…other issues.

My representative in the House is Republican Marsha Blackburn, who voted against the renewal of the act explaining on Andrea Mitchell Reports last week, that she “didn’t like the way it was expanded to include other, different groups.” Ostensibly, this was a jab at the most recent iteration of the law which extends protection to “LGBT, Native American, and undocumented victims of domestic violence.” (*) It’s important to point this out because many House Republicans don’t support the inclusion of these groups (that came from the Senate version) and sent their own watered-down version that removed “’sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ from the list of underserved populations who face barriers to accessing victim services” (*). That version of the bill was not passed, losing in the House by a vote of 166-257 (*).

Some have also argued that the law “unnecessarily expands immigration avenues by creating new definitions for immigrant victims to claim battery” and that it fails “to put in safeguards to ensure that domestic violence grants are being well spent.”  Additionally, as attorney Robert Franklin, Spokesperson for S.A.V.E., who has been arguing herehere and here, VAWA’s successes/statistics might be limited and tied to other protections.

Moving On >>

On February 11, 2013 – the Senate approved an extension of VAWA  by a vote of 78-22, and after some aforementioned rigmarole in the House, the broader version of VAWA passed on February 28, by a vote of 286-138 (*), and was effectively signed and renewed by President Obama today, March 7.

Of the many things I heard in various news reports, was the concern of VAWA’s effectiveness over the years. Sure, earlier I linked to a fact sheet the White House put out citing lower instances of domestic violence, lower rates of murder among domestic partners, more state laws passed and/or reformed to cover stalking, criminal sanctions for the violation of civil protection orders, and the prohibition of polygraphing rape victims, among others. VAWA has the feel, in the media, of being a largely faceless movement with few moving stories to push it forward, compared to the countless stories in the media related to gun-control issues.

Last year, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) helped bring forth the story of  Deborah Parker, Vice Chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes (a Native American tribe in Northwestern Washington state), who was in DC to discuss environmental protection issues, but felt compelled to tell her story and the importance of VAWA, specifically it’s extension to these underserved groups:

What’s Next >>

What is next? In researching much of what I’ve written here, I’ve found countless websites and PDFs from various organizations that seem to quote the same statistics from studies conducted primarily in the first 10 years of VAWA. We’re almost 20 years past its initial passage, and until it was being debated recently in Congress, it was flatly not an issue at the American dinner table, nor are the bulk of statistics any more relevant. That needs to change.

What are your thoughts on VAWA?

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