It is exactly one week since the members of the 113th Congress were sworn in. For the newly-elected freshmen legislators, offices are furnished, and phone lines and emails should be up and running, yet there still hasn’t been a single word uttered about the Violence Against Women Act that House Republicans so callously allowed to expire last month.
VAWA, which was originally drafted in 1994 and has since passed two Congressional re-authorizations, strengthens federal penalties for rapists and domestic abusers and provides funding to aid and counsel the victims.
However, on its third go-round of re-authorization, the Republican-led House of Representatives, eager to continue their do-nothing agenda, allowed it to expire without so much as a vote. Instead, the House unsuccessfully tried to push its own watered-down version of the bill which controversially excluded three key groups that are especially vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence—Native American women, immigrant women and the LGBT community.
So let’s take a look at these three contentious items that dare to defend the innocent.
Native American Tribal Law
According to the Justice Department, nearly half of all Native American women have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. And on some reservations, Indian women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
The National Congress of American Indians contends that about 40% of Native American women will face spousal domestic abuse in their lifetime. Pair that with the fact that more than half of those women are married to non-Native American men who are not subject to tribal law and cannot be prosecuted by local tribal authorities (who are oftentimes the only authorities nearby).
It goes without saying that these women are in dire need of help and protection from their abusers, and the revised VAWA would have given it to them by granting tribal courts jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence cases.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, however, will have none of it.
According to thinkprogress.org, Cantor and other Republicans are more concerned with the constitutional rights of the alleged attackers than they are with the victims. This, even though the widely accepted Senate version of the bill included a full set of constitutional protections for suspects of abuse.
Undocumented Immigrant Women
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that immigrant women are among the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society.
They plant, harvest, and pack the fruits and vegetables we eat. They process our meat, poultry, and seafood. They clean our houses and hotel rooms, cook our food, serve us in restaurants, and perform many other jobs at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Yet, in addition to the many abuses faced by their male counterparts, they’re often the target of sexual violence and gender discrimination in the workplace.
These women are largely voiceless, isolated, and afraid. They do not know their rights. They often fear that reporting abuses will lead to job loss and, in some cases, deportation and separation from their children. Some feel too much shame to report harassment or sexual violence, leaving them extremely vulnerable to exploitation by male co-workers or supervisors.
During a 2010 survey, roughly 80% of immigrant farmworking women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lives.
The abuse is so wide-ranging and deplorable that many farmworkers in Salinas, California refer to one local field as “field de calzon”, or “field of panties” because so many women had been raped there by supervisors.
The Senate-passed version of VAWA would have worked toward encouraging victims to report their attackers by granting them temporary legal status in the U.S. in exchange for their assistance in catching the assailant.
With worries of deportation out of the way, victims would be much more likely to come forward and tell their stories.
LGBT victims of domestic abuse
While the LGBT community experiences domestic violence at roughly the same rate as the heterosexual community, they often face unique barriers when requesting services.
A 2010 survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 45% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered victims were turned away when they sought help from a domestic violence shelter and nearly 55% of those who sought protection orders were denied them.
Had VAWA been re-authorized it would would have designated funds to expanding services to LGBT victims of domestic violence.
Given the unique and especially vulnerable positions in which all three of these groups find themselves, many people feel it is imperative that Congress act swiftly to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a staunch supporter of VAWA, said it best when he addressed the Senate floor late last year on the issue, “a victim is a victim is a victim.”