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Violence Against Women Doesn’t Stop When the Government Shuts Down


~24 people per minute are victims of intimate violence—more than

12 million people per year~

The fact that the Violence Against Women Act expired when the government shut down isn’t widely known. While it also isn’t cause for immediate panic (unauthorized programs can receive appropriations), what is alarming is the fact that violence against women has become a partisan issue. Even more alarming is the fact that the President of the United States has authorized changes to the definition of domestic violence that will leave many victims vulnerable and without recourse: “in the Trump Justice Department, only harms that constitute a felony or misdemeanor crime may be called domestic violence. So, for example, a woman whose partner isolates her from her family and friends, monitors her every move, belittles and berates her, or denies her access to money to support herself and her children is not a victim of domestic violence in the eyes of Trump’s Department of Justice. This makes no sense for an office charged with funding and implementing solutions to the problem of domestic violence rather than merely prosecuting individual abusers” (Nanasi).

~More than one million women are raped in a year~

Let’s look at some history.

Prior to second wave feminism, violence against women wasn’t recognized as a serious crime. Law enforcement tended to treat it as a “family matter,” and charges were rarely brought against perpetrators. In the mid-1970s the first domestic violence shelters opened, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the crime of violence against women was codified as criminal conduct. Only then did we see increased penalties for such crimes, along with the establishment of civil protection orders and mandated training for law enforcement. Still it took many more years for activists to secure bipartisan support in Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. The passage of VAWA changed existing rules of evidence, law enforcement procedures, court rules, and penalties for committing violence. In addition, VAWA provided funding for prevention and education programs as well as training (Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund).

~Only 31% of reported rapes (approximately 86% go unreported)

result in arrest~

Since passage of the original act, VAWA has been modified and reauthorized a number of times. Each time, protections have been expanded. In early 2006, stopping violence against women still had bipartisan support, and George W. Bush signed VAWA 2005 into law. It specifically addressed domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It also created notable new focus areas, such as developing prevention strategies to stop violence before it starts; protecting individuals from unfair eviction due to their status as victims of domestic violence or stalking; creating the first federal funding stream to support rape crisis centers; developing culturally and linguistically-specific services for communities; enhancing programs and services for victims with disabilities; and broadening VAWA service provisions to include children and teenagers (

                                                                                               ~10% of all sexual assault cases involve a husband or ex-husband~

Unfortunately, by the next time VAWA was due to be reauthorized, politics in the US had become incredibly polarized. With a divided House and Senate, two different versions of a reauthorization were proposed. The Democratic controlled Senate proposed expanding the act to include gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans; the Republican controlled House balked. The House also refused to consider a Senate provision that would allow Native American women to take American citizens who abuse them to court within the tribal legal system. And finally, the House took issue with the Senate’s proposal of a path to citizenship for illegal women who have been abused and agree to cooperate with the police investigation of the crime. In fact, the House proposed lowering the cap on temporary visas offered to women cooperating in legal investigations to 10,000, below the Senate’s increased 15,000 level (

According to Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington): “But for the leadership in the House of Representatives, passing a bill with life-saving protections to these new communities of women was simply not politically acceptable. So just weeks after the Senate passed our bill, in a purely ideological move, House Republicans passed a bill that specifically stripped the new protections for immigrants, the LGBT community and tribal women, and even removed protections that exist under current law. Surely, we should all be able to agree that where a person lives, their immigration status or who they love should not determine whether or not perpetrators of domestic violence toward them are brought to justice. Surely no police officer should ever have to ask the sexual orientation or immigration status of a woman who lies bruised and battered at the scene of a crime. Yet, the House bill drew those lines” (Murray).

~Marital rape didn’t become a crime in all 50 states until 1993~

Ultimately, the House succeeded in its efforts. Neither bill passed, and VAWA did not get reauthorized. When a new Congress was seated in 2013, the infighting began anew. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 was introduced in the Senate on January 22, 2013 with two sponsors and 59 cosponsors. This time around, the bill was not referred to committee, and was instead immediately placed on the Senate legislative calendar. The bill passed by a vote of 78-22 with strong bipartisan support. This legislation extended the act for five years and provided $659 million for VAWA programs–a funding cut of 17 percent from the reauthorization passed in 2005. The Senate bill also included a provision that would address the backlog of untested rape kits and expedite the process for testing the 400,000 rape kits that at that time remained untested. In addition, the Senate bill contained an amendment that provided funding to combat human trafficking (AP).

However, this legislation met stiff opposition in the House. Conservative groups, including FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, pressured both Senate and House Republicans to vote against the reauthorization. These groups asserted that men would suffer as a result of the efforts to protect women from violence: “Most notable, perhaps, is the group’s false assertion that men would be hurt by a key tribal provision in the Senate VAWA bill. That piece, which would give new jurisdictional authority to tribal officials in cases involving non-Native men abusing Native women on tribal lands, is largely why House Republicans refused to get behind the more broadly supported VAWA bill last year and remains the biggest obstacle to passing it this time around” (Bendery). According to Heritage Action, “the tribal provision would mean that ‘men effectively lose their constitutional rights to due process, presumption of innocence, equal treatment under the law, the right to a fair trial and to confront one’s accusers, the right to bear arms, and all custody/visitation rights’” (Bendery). Apparently, for groups like Heritage Action, violence against women should be all about protecting men.

Perhaps House members had not seen the statistics citing a 67% decline in domestic violence between 1993 and 2010 and an increase in victims reporting domestic and sexual violence to police—a direct result of VAWA (interestingly, the VAWA factsheet that this information appeared on is no longer available at the government site).

In the end, while more Republicans voted against it than supported it, a watered down reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) finally passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 286-138. A total of 87 Republicans and 199 Democrats voted in favor of the reauthorization, the first time the measure had passed in the House since VAWA expired at the end of 2011 (Helderman). While the total amount of funding had been cut by 17 percent from the previous reauthorization, the final version of the bill did expand services to include new protections for the LGBTQ community and Native American women (Helderman).

And now here we are. It’s déjà vu all over again. During the last legislative session, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) introduced H.R.6545, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2018. While it focused on fixes designed to secure bipartisan support, the Violence Against Women Act was not reauthorized by the 115th Congress. Instead of coming together to do the right thing, Congress chose to politicize violence against women yet again, and as a result, they allowed the bill to expire.

A new Congress, the 116th Congress, is now seated in Washington, DC. Once the government reopens, will these legislators make reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act a priority? Will they force the Department of Justice to restore nonphysical violence, including psychological aggression, to the definition of domestic violence so that all victims are protected? Maybe if we all contact our representatives and senators and tell them to stop politicizing violence against women, we can succeed in depoliticizing this issue. Doing all we can to stop violence is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It is a human rights issue. It is the right thing to do. Demand that your senators and representatives do the right thing.


Photos courtesy of Pixabay.

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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