Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What is VAWA and Why Does it Matter?

By Sharon Svec

The Violence Against Women Act (or VAWA) was initially first signed into law on September 13, 1994 by President Clinton.  This milestone marked the increased acknowledgement of domestic violence as a public health and human rights concern both in the U.S. and internationally, and at last, a federal response to national grassroots efforts urging legislation to specifically address domestic violence and sexual assault.  The good news is that VAWA has been reauthorized twice since ’94: once in 2000 and again in 2005.

The 1994 law accomplished many things – it established the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women;  established mechanisms for a coordinated community response to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking crimes; strengthened federal penalties for repeat sex offenders, and included a federal law to prevent offenders from using a victim’s past sexual conduct against them during a rape trial. The law also required states and territories to enforce protection orders issued by other states, tribes and territories; created legal relief for battered immigrants and allowed victims to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes. Finally, VAWA provided grants for law enforcement training, battered women shelters and assistance for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault amounting to $1.6 billion.

The 2000 reauthorization emphasized assistance to victims identified as immigrant, elderly, disabled and those affected through dating violence. It also expanded interstate stalking laws to include cyber stalking. President Bush signed the 2005 reauthorization, which instituted at least six new government programs, and included an increased emphasis on abetting violence against Native Americans.

After all of this progress, now, in 2012, we find that VAWA reauthorization has been held up in Congress since April of this year when the Senate and House passed different versions of the bill.  While each version contains many similarities, the one proposed by the U.S. Senate makes additional efforts to ensure services to same-sex couples, American Indians and immigrants.

Groups like the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and representatives like U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) believe that Congress must work together, as they have previously on VAWA, to agree on a funding bill to be signed by the President this year. On August 15, Senator Patty Murray held a roundtable discussion with local agencies and domestic violence survivors at YWCA Clark County Vancouver, Washington.  Senator Murray has been traveling the country collecting input from survivors, and advocacy agencies like the YWCA – those at the front lines who will be impacted the most by a continued delay in reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Looking back, much has improved since the passing of the first VAWA in 1994. All states now have laws making stalking a crime and have strengthened rape laws. The number of people killed by an intimate partner has decreased 34% for women and 57% for men. Also research from the National Task Force to End Sexual Violence Against Women shows that VAWA saved $12.6 billion in net averted social costs over a six-year period.

The reauthorization of VAWA would build upon successes like these, and continue to break the cycle of violence within our culture. Senator Murray, along with other Democrats, is focused on improving protection for immigrants, the LGBTQ community and tribal community members. Other components that have been proposed are:  streamlining programs, increasing accountability, supporting community-based response and direct service, enhancing criminal justice responses to sexual assault, strengthening housing protection for victims and providing services and prevention programs for young people.

While VAWA has significantly improved protection and service for victims/survivors, agencies like YWCA Clark County are experiencing considerable gaps in funding. This is particularly challenging because domestic violence has been reported by 51% more people since prior to the Act. Funding has not kept up with this increase in reporting by courageous victims and survivors. In 2010, an NNEDV survey found that while more than 70,000 victims are served daily by domestic violence programs, there are over 9,500 daily unmet requests for services nationwide. In addition, a 2009 survey by the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence shows that 25% of rape crisis centers have a waiting list for crisis services, 61% have 3 or fewer staff, and 56% have had to reduce staff due to funding cuts.

YWCA Clark County’s Sexual Assault and SafeChoice Programs rely on funding from VAWA. As VAWA awaits agreement in Congress, an average of 6,300 people are raped and/or physically assaulted daily by a current or former partner, and an average of more than 42,000 children per day  are exposed to domestic violence.

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