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Bumpy ride in US Congress for Violence Against Women Act

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Bumpy ride in US congrestt for Violence Against Women ActDeborah Cowen
WVoN co-editor

This week, the bill to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) will make its way through congress in the United States.

The 1994 Act, which established domestic violence and stalking as federal crimes, and provided funding for victim support and services, has generally been regarded as a success.

Since the law was passed, there has been a decrease of 34% in the number of women killed by an intimate partner, and the rates of domestic violence have been greatly reduced  in several states as a result of funded programmes in law enforcement, services, and legal representation.

The reauthorisation bill sets out to embed those laws already existing on domestic violence and stalking, increase reporting and prosecution on violence against women and for the first time specifically extend VAWA protections to all colleges and university campuses. 

The reauthorisation would appear, then, to be a no-brainer.  Indeed, violence against women issues are traditionally politically bipartisan.

However, the debate took a controversial turn earlier this year when the Democrats sought to expand protections already in existence to give special provision to those in same-sex relationships, women who are undocumented immigrants, and Native American tribal women who are victims of domestic abuse.

The new provisions would also look to relax the issue of visas for undocumented migrant women who have been victims of violence, and who may be afraid to come forward in case they are deported.

Although the bill was co-sponsored by democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican Mike Crapo, it received no Republican support at the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.  (Mike Crapo is not a committee member.)

Senate Republicans are, in fact, challenging the new provisions and while Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has made it clear that his party do not want to block the bill, they insist on having their alternative bill considered, which effectively removes all the new proposed provisions.

Currently, the bill has 61 co-sponsors, only eight of whom are republicans.

While the Democrats are accusing their Republican colleagues’ rejection of a “hard-right” move “against women,” the Republicans easily counter with the accusation that the reauthorisation will give Democrats a chance to refocus on women’s policy issues.

The Democrats are recovering from last week’s gaffe by strategist Hilary Rosen who claimed that Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay-at-home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.”

Cue the rage of millions of mothers who rightly see raising a family and running a home as more than equal to a full-time job.

White House officials have, of course, refuted accusations of a political motive for the bill and insist that Republicans will have difficulty justifying their opposition.

Let’s hope they do, as it seems counter-intuitive to use the word opposition in the same sentence as violence against women legislation.

Vice President Joe Biden, who authored the Act in 1994, spoke about the issue on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” (with a nod to the slip up by Hilary Rosen):

“Whether it’s Violence Against Women Act or equal pay, my entire career as a Senator and as vice president is to get to one point, where my daughter is able to make whatever choice she wants and no one questions it. … If my daughter wants to be able to say, ‘I’m staying home and raising my kids,’ no one should question it,” Biden said.

President Obama also spoke about the bill at a conference on women at the White House in April.

“When something like the Violence Against Women Act — a bill Joe Biden authored, a bill that once passed by wide bipartisan margins — is suddenly called to question, that makes no sense. … That’s not something we should still be arguing about,” he said, to loud cheers.

Not quite the case, according to Janice Shaw-Crouse, Senior Fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for Concerned Women for America, who says:

‘VAWA is more about building feminist power structures than about protecting vulnerable women or helping battered women. The bottom line is that a vote for VAWA is a vote against women.’

Oh my.

But why has this issue once again become swallowed up by political squabbling?  Who cares about Republican and Democrat petty politics?

The focus should be on providing the best protection and care possible for all women – and indeed men – regardless of race, sexual orientation, ethnic background or any other characteristic.

The reauthorization and expansion of this bill will help to redefine the face of who can be a victim of violent or sexual abuse by including same-sex couples and undocumented immigrants.

The welfare of the victims of violence – whoever they are – need to be placed firmly at the centre of any legislative change.  If Congress fails to reauthorize the VAWA based on conflicting ideologies, it yet again puts women in an unacceptably vulnerable position.

Postscript :

Asked about the VAWA issue four years ago at a forum in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney seemed to draw a blank.

“I’m not familiar with the act,” he said.

The forum was called “Ask Mitt Anything”.

Well, almost anything.

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