Doing violence to women

Nicole Colson explains why the Violence Against Women Act wasn't renewed.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Gage Skidmore)House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Gage Skidmore)

IT'S HARD to imagine Republicans in Congress hitting a new low--they've sunk so far already--but they may have managed it when GOP leaders blocked renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

The VAWA was first passed in 1994 and has been renewed twice since, but not this year.

What could be offensive about a bill designed to protect and provide services to victims of physical and sexual assault? A lot--if you're a Republican who refuses to recognize the rights of minority groups.

Last February, when the VAWA came up for formal consideration, Republicans were already finding excuses to oppose the bill. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the senior Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, said at the time that the legislation "creates so many new programs for underserved populations that it risks losing the focus on helping victims, period."

In particular, the "underserved populations" Republicans object to are members of the LGBT community, undocumented immigrants and Native American woman--groups that, in the latest version of the VAWA, would receive some expanded protections. The added provisions were the result of domestic and sexual assault specialists and anti-violence advocates working to make the law more responsive to the actual situations they say they see.

According to the New York Times:

The legislation would continue existing grant programs to local law enforcement and battered women shelters, but would expand efforts to reach Indian tribes and rural areas. It would increase the availability of free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, extend the definition of violence against women to include stalking, and provide training for civil and criminal court personnel to deal with families with a history of violence. It would also allow more battered illegal immigrants to claim temporary visas, and would include same-sex couples in programs for domestic violence.

In April, the Senate passed a version of VAWA that extended protections to these vulnerable communities--but House Republicans refused to support the legislation and passed their own, stripped-down bill, while complaining that Democrats had included the new measures specifically to make Republicans look bad by "forcing" them to oppose the act.

And so millions of women and their families will be affected by the failure to re-authorize the act.

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REPUBLICANS--led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the main Republican negotiator on the bill--particularly object to a provision in the bill that would give Native American tribal courts limited jurisdiction to try cases in which Native women are physically or sexually assaulted by non-Native men on tribal lands. Currently, such cases must be heard in federal courts--often leading to lengthy delays, when there is a trial at all.

Native women are at heightened risk for physical and sexual violence. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, one out of every three Native women will be raped in their lifetime, and three out of five will be physically assaulted. On some reservations, the murder rate for Native women is as high as 10 times the national average.

According to the center, the vast majority of these crimes committed against Native women--88 percent--are committed by non-Native men. In such cases, tribal courts are unable to try these cases, putting women at greater risk since their attackers know they can act with impunity:

Terri Henry, co-chair of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women and a councilwoman for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians said in an article on the center website: "This leaves Indian nations, which have sovereignty over their territories and people, as the only governments in America without jurisdiction and the local control needed to combat such violence in their communities,"

The center contends that federal prosecutors, who are often located hundreds of miles away, decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse matters referred to them from Native American reservations.

Republicans also objected to added protections for members of the LGBT community and undocumented immigrants, claiming they were included only for political reasons.

That's obviously false. While the LGBT community experiences violence in rates comparable to heterosexuals, discrimination often prevents victims from receiving needed services that can be vital to helping a victim separate from an abuser. According to CNN, "About 45 percent of LGBT victims were turned away when they sought help from a domestic violence shelter and nearly 55 percent of those who sought protection orders were denied them."

But when asked why Republicans would object to added protections and services for the LGBT population, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers told Chris Matthews that this was a "side issue," adding, "[T]here is nothing under federal law that currently recognizes same-sex couples."

As for undocumented immigrants, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of immigrant women and girls, often undocumented, who work in the U.S. as farmworkers face increased rates of violence and sexual assault and harassment.

Fear of deportation often causes victims to be reluctant to report crimes against them, which is why the U-visa system, in which victims of abuse can apply for special immigration dispensation while working with authorities to prosecute their abusers, is so vital. But anti-immigrant House Republicans want to prevent an increase in the number of U-visa applications.

Incredibly, the Republicans' version of the VAWA would actually weaken existing protections for undocumented immigrants by, among other things, allowing government officials to receive information from an accused abuser about the spouse's immigration application--something prohibited under the current version of the law.

"The House bill is a gift to abusers," Human Rights Watch's Meghan Rhoad said in a statement. "It undoes the great work that Congress did to ensure that abusers could not use the threat of deportation as leverage to keep their victims silent, and it puts women back in the position of having to choose between being beaten up and being deported."

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THERE WILL be real effects from VAWA not being renewed. Among other things, the act provides funding for rape-crisis centers and community violence prevention programs around the country, as well as money for legal aid for female victims of violence and the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. It also established a federal rape shield law that prevented rape victims from being interrogated on the stand about past sexual behavior.

As the Campaign for Funding to End Domestic and Sexual Violence noted:

Since its enactment in 1994, VAWA has improved how our nation addresses these crimes and has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of victims. As a result, more victims report domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking to the police, and both the rate of non-fatal intimate partner violence and the number of individuals killed by an intimate partner have decreased.

Because of VAWA, victims have unprecedented access to services that enable them to escape abuse and rebuild their lives. In 2012, programs under VAWA will provide lifesaving services to approximately 740,000 victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.

Even without reauthorization, VAWA will remain on the books in its 2005 form. However, budget crises at the state and local levels mean that without renewed authorization, the withholding of federal funding will have a dramatic impact on the ability of groups to provide services to the victims of assault, abuse and sexual violence.

Already, organizations that serve the victims of violent crimes are facing a crisis. In an interview for the Pottsville, Pa., Republican Herald, for example, Jenny Murphy-Shifflet, of the Sexual Assault and Resource Counseling Center of Schuylkill County (SARCC), said her organization is currently waiting for $30,000 of promised funding.

"We have to cut back on all operational funds, transportation," and other costs, she told the paper. "This just isn't about money. This is our country taking a stand to say it will not tolerate violence."

This funding crisis will be further impacted by the next round of negotiations over the so-called "fiscal cliff," which will likely include major cuts in funding of most federal programs, including those that help the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. According to the Campaign for Funding to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, an 8 percent cut to such federal programs--which has been threatened several times as part of the debate about the "fiscal cliff"--would mean:

-- 112,190 fewer victims would have access to domestic violence programs and shelters;

-- Approximately 64,000 fewer victims would have assistance in obtaining protection orders, crisis intervention and counseling, sexual assault services, hospital based advocacy, transitional housing services, and help with civil legal matters;

-- Newer-funded programs that specifically meet the unique needs of rape and sexual assault victims, including medical and legal assistance and other direct services, would be significantly compromised;

-- Programs that provide services to children and youth exposed to violence would also face cuts that would undermine their ability to reach and protect victims.

It wasn't too long ago that Eric Cantor said the Republicans "need to be a party of inclusion not exclusion. We need to be promoting tolerance." Apparently, though, in Cantor's world, immigrants, the LGBT community, Native Americans and women in general aren't to be tolerated.