Activists around the world are engaged in the “16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence” campaign, calling on governments to take action on crimes from rape in war to domestic abuse by International Human Rights Day on December 10. In the United States, activists have added motivation for pushing policymakers to act within this timeframe. Congress is at an impasse over renewing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the country’s primary national legislation addressing domestic abuse, sexual violence, and stalking. With the remainder of the 112th Congress now a matter of weeks, it is a very real possibility that the act will not be renewed.
If that happens, it will constitute an alarming failure of Congress as a whole and in particular of members of the House of Representatives who rallied against a progressive renewal bill.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five women in the US has been raped and one in four has experienced severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. First passed in 1994, VAWA is the bedrock of the country’s response to that violence. It supports training to strengthen the criminal justice response to violence against women, the provision of life-saving services for survivors, from hotlines to shelter and legal assistance, and much more.
VAWA has a track record of success: between 1993 and 2007, the annual number of deaths by intimate partner homicide dropped by 34 percent for women and 57 percent for men. At the same time, the law was saving the country money – an estimated $12.6 billion in the first six years alone. VAWA has been renewed twice, with each renewal enhancing that response. The Senate, with the vote of every woman senator, passed a bi-partisan bill in April to renew VAWA for a third time, including modest improvements to build on the progress made and lessons learned in the fight against violence against women so far.
The Senate bill reflects the anti-violence movement’s priority of ensuring that all who seek out protection can find it. The bill would provide anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender victims of violence. The bill would expand on the successful U-visa program, which helps immigrant women leave violent situations without fear of deportation.
The bill would also resolve jurisdictional issues that cause certain acts of violence against women on Native American reservations to fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system, resulting in impunity for perpetrators.
With that compromise bill in hand from the Senate, the House instead took up and ultimately passed a bill that not only rejects the improvements of the Senate version, but would roll back established protections for immigrant victims of violence. Its passage represented a rejection of the principle that all victims have a right to safety.
One would hope that after the recent elections, the parsing of victims to determine who is deserving and who is not would be at an end. Failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who voted for the House VAWA bill as a congressman, faced national public outrage and condemnation across the political spectrum after comments he made falsely asserting that victims of “legitimate rape” could not become pregnant as a result. The message in the groundswell of disapproval came through loud and clear: Congress needs to stand with women—all women—against violence.
It is time for Congress to heed that call and pass the Senate VAWA bill.
In the little time that remains in this session, Congress faces a number of important challenges, and charting a course for the future of national anti-violence efforts is one that should not be postponed. VAWA is too important to delay renewing it any longer, and the expanded victim protections at stake in the Senate VAWA bill are too critical to sacrifice.