Historically, the Violence Against Women Act has been an uncontroversial, bipartisan bill reauthorized by Congress as a matter of routine. Passed in 1994, the act created training grants and programs to help investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. It also increased funding for direct services for victims of domestic violence, such as emergency shelter, counseling and legal services, and established the Office on Violence Against Women, which develops federal policy and programs to reduce domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
But VAWA, up for reauthorization this year, is facing opposition from Senate Republicans based on several new provisions. As the New York Times reports:
The legislation would continue existing grant programs to local law enforcement and battered women shelters, but would expand efforts to reach Indian tribes and rural areas. It would increase the availability of free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, extend the definition of violence against women to include stalking, and provide training for civil and criminal court personnel to deal with families with a history of violence. It would also allow more battered illegal immigrants to claim temporary visas, and would include same-sex couples in programs for domestic violence.
According to some Senate Republicans, the expanded protections for domestic violence victims who are undocumented immigrants, in same-sex couples and in Native American communities unnecessarily politicize the bill.
"I favor the Violence Against Women Act and have supported it at various points over the years, but there are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) argued that the updated legislation "creates so many new programs for underserved populations that it risks losing the focus on helping victims, period."
But Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) — who was instrumental in the 1994 passage of the VAWA as the then-executive director for the National Network to End Domestic Violence — says that the changes make sense because those underserved populations are more vulnerable. In an interview with The Root, she tries to cut through the politics and illuminate why she believes that reauthorization of the law is critical.
The Root: What's your response to the concerns of Senate Republicans that Democrats are politicizing the Violence Against Women Act with these expanded protections?
Donna Edwards: Essentially, since the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law in 1994, and its two subsequent reauthorizations, offering services and protections for broader and distinct groups of people has been a hallmark of the law. The proposals coming out of the Senate committee are entirely consistent with the history of VAWA.
As happens with legislation, the more experience we have with it, the more we hear from our shelters, services and providers, the more we know about how services can be best delivered and how law enforcement can take place in the real-world environment. It makes sense to ensure that the law is accommodating to the circumstances and meets the needs of those who experience violence where they are.
TR: With regard to undocumented immigrants, one concern is that it could open up new avenues for immigration by allowing victims to falsely claim battery. Do you think the provision could set that precedent?
DE: That is just so far from the truth. When legal protections have been extended to allow battered immigrant women to seek the protection of VAWA, you still have the same inquiries going on, as to whether the person is experiencing violence. It's just saying that this is a particularly vulnerable population precisely because of their immigration status.
If you look at immigration law over the past several years as it pertains to battered-women protections, women aren't racing to be protected. It's a limited number of people whose lives are in grave danger, who are experiencing violence and seeking the protection of the law.
TR: What discussions are happening in the House around reauthorization of VAWA?
DE: Many of us have just been startled to see, over on the Senate side, what I think is a partisan approach to something that is about as nonpartisan as you can get: protecting people from violence. We're looking at the activity on the Senate side and hoping that reauthorization will move forward to the House.
TR: But Democrats have also been accused of using VAWA's reauthorization to capitalize on their "Republican War on Women" narrative. Do you think that's happening?
DE: I don't even want to speculate about that. Here's what I do know. I know that when the women all across this country live in a home that's violent, and when their children witness that violence, the detrimental impact that has on all of our communities. I think all of us, as Democrats and Republicans, don't want to see that happen.
I don't want this to be lumped into all of the other issues that are going on with regard to women's health care and health care delivery. I do want to make sure that we continue to maintain the bipartisan support that issues of violence against women have enjoyed in this country at least since 1994. And I'm committed to doing that.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.