VAWA: Keep it about protection, not politics

One might be tempted to think that, even in the very heated debate regarding contraception, reproductive rights, and the war on women, that at least we could agree that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is something we can all support across party lines.

VAWA was, after all, passed in 1994 with broad bipartisan support, and reauthorized with continued bipartisan support in 2000 and 2005.  The act established much-needed federal funding to support rape crisis centers.  It facilitated community-coordinated responses to combating violence against women.  It provided over a billion dollars for investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women.  These are all good and much needed steps to combat a community health problem affecting people in both parties.

But, of course, one would be wrong.  Expecting continued bipartisan support for a vital step in combating the alarming rates of domestic violence in this country would be just too optimistic these days, I’m afraid.  Not one single Republican voted in favor of reauthorization in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Not one.

Now that the bill is out of committee, Republican legislators are claiming that the bill’s timing and contents are evidence of political manipulation from the Democrats.  They argue that Democrats are using media hype over a “War on Women” to push Republicans into voting for a bill that has provisions Republicans wouldn’t vote for otherwise.  “I favor the Violence Against Women Act and have supported it at various points over the years, but there are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who voted against the bill in committee.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the only reason anyone thinks there is a war on women is the deluge of Republican-sponsored legislation, federal and state, attempting to curtail women’s reproductive rights and freedoms.  What are these matters that seem to invite opposition?  The current version of VAWA up for reauthorization includes increased resources for women in Native American tribes and rural areas, expands protections for abused, undocumented women by allowing them to claim temporary visas, and includes resources for LGBTQ victims. I can only imagine that these are the vital differences that have lost Republican support.

The New York Times reports that Republicans criticize the bill because expanding protections to new groups like LGBTQ individuals dilutes the focus on domestic violence.  I cannot see how this can be true.  Domestic violence is enabled by a lack of resources, by poverty and marginalization.  It is these “new groups,” who have no resources to leave their abuser, who are threatened with outing, or deportation, who lack the language skills or education to be their own advocates, who need legal protection the most.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to intern with an organization in DC that provided free legal and counseling services to survivors of domestic violence.  The organization was especially proud of its innovative services tailored to the needs of the Latina and LGBTQ communities.  Working the front desk, I met dozens of women every day in desperate situations who would have no where to go and no resources if this organization didn’t provide them free of charge.  The vast majority of these women were not white or middle class.  Most were black or Latina.  Some were transgender.  Some came with their children.  Many didn’t speak English.  I received heartbreaking calls from gay men suffering abuse who didn’t know if services were even available to them.  A few months ago, the organization had to shut down because of funding issues, and the hundreds of abuse survivors who depended on it for help may or may not be able to get services elsewhere.

I don’t mention this because the organization received support or services from VAWA, because I don’t have that information, but rather because it showed me the vast diversity of women and men who desperately need these services and the gaps that desperately need to be filled.  In what moral code is it just to deny people protection from violence because of sexual orientation or immigration status? Even if we cannot agree about immigration policy or gay rights, certainly we must agree that no one deserves to be a victim of violence and abuse. Did an undocumented woman killed by her partner deserve to die because she was too afraid of deportation to go to the police, even if you don’t think she was supposed to be here in the first place?  Does a gay woman or man brutally battered by her or his partner and unable to seek services deserve to suffer her abuse, even if you don’t support her or his “lifestyle choice”?  Surely Republicans don’t want those lives on their consciences.

I find it appalling that Republicans in the Senate are framing this as an issue of political manipulation.  It is a reflection of how tragically polarized our government has become, when not just contraception, but actual violence against women becomes a tool in a partisan power struggle.  Even if the Democrats are bringing VAWA to the floor with its timing in mind, this is a matter of shame, not manipulation.  I cannot believe that the Republicans actually are indifferent to or tacitly support domestic violence.  As such, it is shameful that Republicans would be willing to compromise their values, oppose such a vital piece of legislation, and blame it on Democratic manipulation.  It is shameful that Republicans are willing to deny someone protections against violence because of their sexual orientation or immigration status.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  It is not inevitable that women’s safety, security, and even their lives must hang in the balance of a political power struggle.  If the Democrats plan to shame the Republicans over this, the Republicans have earned it.  But I don’t think it’s too late to turn back, and keep VAWA as the one act Democrats and Republicans can consistently both support.  We are better than this.

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