By: Alexis Overstreet
Originally introduced by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) and enacted in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA or the Act) has sought to ensure the safety of communities by providing resources to judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, and victims for nearing two decades. Some studies have shown the incidence of domestic violence in the United States has fallen by approximately 50% since the Act’s inception. Other studies indicate increased reporting of domestic violence, which could be a sign of increased awareness of resources made available through the Act. VAWA has received consistent praise for drawing attention to a crime epidemic, which has predominantly prevailed in secrecy.
Under the terms of VAWA, Congress must reevaluate and reauthorize the Act every five years because as society evolves our understanding of domestic violence increases, and new tactics may be necessary. Lawmakers must address new scientific information gathered from various studies of domestic violence as well as reports from practitioners and advocates addressing the effectiveness of VAWA to update the Act and ensure effective and efficient responses to new issues arising within the field. With each reauthorization, VAWA is reviewed and enhanced to provide up to date approaches for combating domestic violence. VAWA was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 and has generally enjoyed bipartisan support.
VAWA is currently undergoing reauthorization with several new provisions in the legislation. Sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and co-sponsored by Senator Michael Crapo (R-ID), the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 was introduced in the Senate on November 30, 2011. Although VAWA’s reauthorization was introduced to the Senate in a bipartisan manner, it has since faced criticism. On February 2, 2012 VAWA’s reauthorization bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 10 to 8 party-line vote. Certain new provisions contained in the reauthorization bill have been the cause of ongoing controversy within the Senate since the bill’s introduction.
One provision that has created push back among Republican members of Congress is added clarification that funds may be used for programs supporting LGBT victims. A noted problem in addressing domestic violence has been the lack of resources available to LGBT victims. VAWA’s reauthorization bill seeks to address this reality by clarifying that funds may be allocated to support this community. The reasoning behind the clarification is that domestic violence impacts a wide range of society, and victims do not fit any specific status, meaning that the effect of domestic violence is not limited to those involved in heterosexual relationships. The VAWA reauthorization bill addresses this fact by also prohibiting programs or activities receiving VAWA funds from excluding from participation, denying benefits to, or discriminating against anyone on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The VAWA reauthorization bill does not allocate more protection to LGBT victims or create new programs to assist them; it simply clarifies that funds may be used to assist this group and prevents discrimination against its members. Lawmakers included these provisions in an effort to reach and provide resources for every victim under VAWA. The provisions promote Congress’s original intention to hold offenders accountable, keep communities safe, and support victims. The argument is that VAWA should support all victims, regardless of identification as an individual with a nontraditional sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some lawmakers have responded favorably to the LGBT clarification in the legislation. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) recently boasted that under the proposed VAWA reauthorization bill, “VAWA will be the first grant program in our federal government to explicitly state that grant recipients cannot discriminate on the basis of a victim’s status as part of the LGBT community.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-coons/violence-against-women-ac_b_1249516.html). Other members of Congress have not viewed this clarification favorably. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) voiced concern that allowing VAWA’s programs to provide resources to new groups of victims like LGBT individuals actually frustrates its goal of assisting victims. Senator Grassley remarked, “If every group is a priority, no group is a priority” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/14/violence-against-women-act_n_1273097.html). Other critics of VAWA’s reauthorization have echoed this concern asserting the creation of various new programs is a misuse of funds. Some have advocated for using social science research to more effectively allocate resources under VAWA. Others believe VAWA should focus more on prevention providing education on domestic violence rather than intervention through prosecution. The VAWA reauthorization bill’s sponsor, Senator Leahy is committed to the additional language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Senator Leahy believes a goal of VAWA should be to help all victims, regardless of identity, to provide equal protection to everyone.
Supporters of the VAWA reauthorization bill claim that through consolidation and reductions in authorization levels, the bill manages to protect programs that have proven effective while cutting costs. It also seeks to alleviate administrative burdens by improving application processes by streamlining and consolidating grant programs. Others view this reduction in funding with criticism as these cuts have taken VAWA appropriations back to the 2000 reauthorization levels. VAWA has never been fully funded since its inception, and many view these cuts as obstacles to VAWA reaching its full potential. Many believe VAWA’s resources were already spread too thin, and the recent cuts in its budget have lawmakers and advocates questioning the practicality of VAWA’s seeking to reach every victim.
While VAWA will likely be reauthorized, the recent opposition has highlighted serious problems, which persist in the legislation and require serious attention. Increasing funding and eventually fully funding the Act can combat many of these problems. One in four women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner; one in six women have been stalked; and approximately one in five women have been raped in their lifetime. Critics are likely correct to say resources are currently spread too thin, but this shortcoming should not be cause to give up on VAWA. The gravity of this type of crime and these troubling statistics demonstrate the need to fully commit to VAWA. It is disingenuous for lawmakers to voice support for VAWA and firm opposition to domestic violence in interviews and press releases. Lawmakers should substantiate their commitment to fighting this epidemic through voting to fully fund VAWA.
- Violence Against Women Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322
- Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, S. 1925, 112th Cong. (2011).
- 157 Cong. Rec. S8071 (daily ed. Nov. 30, 2011) (statement by Sen. Leahy).