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VAWA: Where the Senate’s right and the House is dead wrong

Introduced by then Senator Joe Biden in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is a tremendous piece of legislation that strengthens penalties, requires states to enforce protection orders from other jurisdictions, makes it more difficult for abusers to threaten immigrant victims with deportation, promotes coordinated community response, and funds programs that save lives.

VAWA funds directly support the work of YWCA victim advocates. But it’s not just about funding. VAWA transformed the way communities approach domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. At the YWCA, we see firsthand the benefits of this legislation every single day.

Preventing violence against women has long been a nonpartisan issue, but recently VAWA’s reauthorization has become controversial. After much debate, the Senate recently passed S. 1925, which adds provisions for underserved communities. The House is set to vote on HR 4970, a version of VAWA that strips these protections, which are fundamental to women’s autonomy, family harmony, and community safety.

Immigrant needs: All victims face barriers to safety, but for immigrants, the task is nearly insurmountable. Without advocates to guide and support them, they cannot overcome barriers of language, culture, isolation, and lack of income, childcare, transportation, and knowledge of their rights. Abusers use all of this against them, telling victims they will be deported and lose their children. Legal protections and funding for culturally specific programming help to counteract these problems. While some may not support undocumented immigrants receiving services, all victims of crime are entitled to services in this country. Violence in the community is violence in the community no matter the circumstances. Children in violent family situations frequently grow up to be perpetrators and victims, and the children of immigrants are often US citizens.

Immigrant provisions: VAWA has always included protections for immigrants, such as U visas, which give victims who cooperate with law enforcement temporary legal status. S. 1925 recaptures unused U visas (due to a backlog in 2006-2011) and makes them available for the new VAWA term. HR 4970 undercuts the visa program, discouraging victims from working with law enforcement and allowing batterers to perpetuate abuse by threatening deportation. It also strips confidentiality protections for immigrant victims. All victims deserve confidentiality; otherwise, they will be deterred from reporting.

LGBT needs: LGBT individuals experience approximately the same rates of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking as everyone else, yet they rarely receive effective services because protocols are typically designed for heterosexual couples and providers tend to lack cultural competency. LGBT victims are sometimes arrested because of assumptions about which party is the aggressor. Often, they are denied services. In one study, 25% of LGBT victims were denied shelter due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBT provisions: S. 1925 prohibits law enforcement and service providers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and allows federal funding to go toward programs helping LGBT victims. HR 4970 strips those provisions, allowing discrimination to go unchecked and leaving barriers to prevention and intervention intact. It’s a matter of equal access.

Tribal needs: Native American women face the highest rates of violence in the country. Non-Natives comprise 40% of reservation populations and commit 80% of violent crimes against Native people, yet they are not subject to Tribal prosecution. While the rest of us can go through our local jurisdictions, the Department of Justice has jurisdiction over felony crimes against Native Americans, which means that victims must travel hundreds of miles to access federal, or sometimes state, courts prioritizing homicide and terrorism. Consequently, federal and state governments rarely prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault crimes. Without an effective response, non-Natives can more or less attack women in Indian Country with impunity.

Tribal provisions: S. 1925 gives tribes limited jurisdiction on crimes of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking by non-Native offenders. This holds offenders accountable and increases safety on reservations. HR 4970 contains no Tribal provisions, leaving Native women subject to continued assault and allowing rapists and abusers to go unpunished, leaving us all vulnerable.

VAWA’s legacy cannot be underestimated. Since its initial passage in 1994, domestic-violence reporting has increased by 51% for women and 37% for men and the number of DV-related homicides has decreased by 34% for women and 57% for men. By 2000, VAWA had saved taxpayers $14.8 billion. Like all cultural problems, the dynamics of gender-based violence fluctuate, and VAWA must respond to those changes if it is to remain effective.

We encourage you to contact your Congressperson today and share your thoughts on this vital issue.

–Written by Sara Baker, YWCA Director of Women’s Advocacy and Written Communications

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