The Violence Against Women Act Turns Fifteen
Sun Oct 04, 2009 at 04:04:05 PM PDT
High on the list of reasons I'm proud to be associated with Daily Kos is the story of this community's involvement with Pretty Bird Woman House. That started in April, 2007, when Devilstower mentioned Pretty Bird Woman House in a post on violence against Native American women. At the time, the shelter was in imminent danger of closure due to lack of funds. A diarist who is no longer active on the site immediately launched a fundraising drive, and the rest, as they say, is history. Several diarists and contributing editors kept up the drumbeat, many many members of this community and no doubt readers of other blogs chipped in, more than $25,000 was raised in less than two weeks, and Pretty Bird Woman House had enough money to survive until its staff could find longer-term funding sources. Things seemed good.
But then, PBWH was broken into and burned down. And again, this community led the online component of the fight to save it, ultimately raising -- along with more than two dozen other blogs -- enough to buy the shelter a new home. Over these years, a Pretty Bird Woman House blog has been started, and smaller fundraising drives have helped get PBWH painted and provided sheets and towels and blankets, and PBWH staff came to Netroots Nation for a panel.
It is just so beautiful to be part of a community that rises to occasions like that, and doesn't just reach out once but returns to find out if more is needed, builds coalitions, and seeks to learn about the people and organizations it is helping.
One other thing. Last year, there was another effort, to help the shelter buy a new furnace (important in South Dakota's winters). That effort was conducted in honor of the Biden family: then-Sen. Joe Biden's mother-in-law had just passed away, and Biden had authored and fought for the Violence Against Women Act, which was passed in 1994.
Last month was the 15th anniversary of the passage of VAWA and this month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, both of which are opportunities to consider how far we've come, and how far we have yet to go. The story of Pretty Bird Woman House shows that, no matter how much progress has been made, there are gaping holes in justice for and protection of women who have been subjected to violence. In the current economy, those holes are opening up not just on remote reservations but in major cities: a Washington, DC domestic violence organization has been engaged in a last-ditch fundraising effort so that it doesn't have to close its doors, for instance.
According to the federal Office on Violence Against Women, which was created to implement VAWA,
VAWA was designed to improve criminal justice responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking and to increase the availability of services for victims of these crimes. VAWA requires a coordinated community response (CCR) to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, encouraging jurisdictions to bring together players from diverse backgrounds to share information and to use their distinct roles to improve community responses to violence against women. These players include, but are not limited to: victim advocates, police officers, prosecutors, judges, probation and corrections officials, health care professionals, leaders within faith communities, and survivors of violence against women. The federal law takes a comprehensive approach to violence against women by combining tough new penalties to prosecute offenders while implementing programs to aid the victims of such violence.
The Violence Against Women Act of 2000 (VAWA 2000) and the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005 (VAWA 2005) reauthorized the grant programs created by the original VAWA and subsequent legislation, as well as established new programs. Specifically, the new programs of VAWA 2005 include the Court Training and Improvements, Child Witness, and Culturally Specific programs. The VAWA 2000 reauthorization strengthened the original law by improving protections for battered immigrants, sexual assault survivors, and victims of dating violence. In addition, it enabled victims of domestic violence that flee across state lines to obtain custody orders without returning to jurisdictions where they may be in danger. Furthermore, it improved the enforcement of protection orders across state and tribal lines. VAWA 2005 continued to improve upon these laws by providing an increased focus on the access to services for underserved populations.
What's changed since its implementation? Well, response and enforcement has changed a lot. According to one account, in the decade after the initial bill,
- States have passed more than 660 laws to combat domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. All states have criminalized stalking and changed laws that considered date or spousal rape to be a lesser crime than rape by a stranger.
- More victims are reporting violence: among victims of violence by an intimate partner, the percentage of women who reported the crime increased between 1993 and 1998, from 48% to 59%.
- Since 1996, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has answered over 1 million calls. The Hotline responds to over 16,000 calls each month and provides access to translators in 139 languages.
- Businesses have joined the fight to stop violence against women; hundreds of companies have created Employee Assistance Programs to assist victims of domestic violence.
Perhaps the most blunt -- but ultimately most meaningful -- measures are these: Between 1994 and 2005, the rate of nonfatal intimate partner victimization fell from 5.5 to 2.3. In 1994, there were 1,401 female victims of intimate homicide, while in 2005, there were 1,181. (Interestingly, in 1976 there were 1,304 male victims of intimate homicide and 1,587 female victims. But the number of male victims dropped quickly and has continued dropping while female victims stayed pretty steady until the 1990s and plateaued again after 2002. I'm curious what the story is there.)
It would appear, in other words, that legislation works, at least to some degree, and particularly legislation that has come backed by billions of dollars in grants. What else can be done, then?
Patty Murray, Sherrod Brown, and Chris Dodd have one answer, with the Security and Financial Empowerment (SAFE) Act, which aims "to ensure that victims of domestic violence have the financial means to escape abusive relationships":
- Allows a victim to take time off from work, without penalty from their employers, to make necessary court appearances, seek legal assistance, and get help with safety planning. For families attempting to escape a violent environment, attending to such necessities is often a matter of life and death.
- Ensures that victims can retain the financial independence necessary to leave their abusers without having to rely on welfare by requiring that states provide unemployment benefits to victims who are terminated from employment due to circumstances stemming from domestic violence.
- Prohibits employers or insurance providers from basing hiring or coverage decisions on a victim’s history of abuse.
- Addresses the punitive elements of the welfare system that can penalize victims who are fleeing dangerous situations, also called the Family Violence Option.
Because our gaze can go outward even as we recognize that our own home is imperfect and requires continuing work, there's also the International Violence Against Women Act, which was introduced in the last Congress -- again by Biden (with Richard Lugar) without coming to a vote. I-VAWA:
directs the U.S. government to create a comprehensive, 5-year strategy to reduce violence in 10-20 diverse countries that have severe levels of violence against women and girls. To achieve this goal, the Act allocates more than $1 billion in U.S. assistance over 5 years and makes ending violence against women and girls a U.S. diplomatic priority. Importantly, the bill also expands U.S. support and capacity for overseas nongovernmental organizations - particularly women's nongovernmental organizations - working to end violence against women and girls in their own countries.