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Congressional Fail: What Happened to the Violence Against Women Act

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January 15, 2013

2012 was full of fascinating–and occasionally terrifying–reproductive justice dialogues. Beginning in February when Rush Limbaugh made disparaging comments about Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke’s congressional speech in support of mandated insurance coverage of birth control, it became clear that the “war on women” and reproductive agency was in full swing. Less than a month later, President Obama issued a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month Proclamation where he asserted that “the prevalence of sexual assault remains an affront to our national conscience that we cannot ignore.” As the presidential election approached, Republican candidate Mitt Romney stated that Roe v. Wade–the case which legalized abortion–should be overturned. He also voiced a similar stance on the Affordable Care Act.

After the election in November, things seemed to be on the up and up: Roe v. Wade and ACA were no longer in extreme jeopardy, and Congress was looking a considerably more diverse in gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. An unprecedented amount of women were elected, including Tammy Baldwin, the first gay Senator. 2013 was shaping up to be a great year.

Perhaps this is why the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on January 2nd came as such a shock to many reproductive justice advocates. Drafted by then-senator Joe Biden in 1994, the law devoted over 1.6 billion dollars to the investigation and legal expenses surrounding violent crimes against women, including but not limited to female genital mutilation, marital rape, acid throwing, and forced prostitution.

Confession: Until its expiration, I’d never actually heard of VAWA before. This is probably because the law was renewed in 2000 and again in 2005 under the Bush administration with relatively little hassle. Its goal–to protect our nation’s women from violence–was a bipartisan one. After all, everyone has a mother, sister, wife, or female friend in their life worth protecting. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, this is universal sentiment.

While it’s often said that the third time’s a charm, VAWA 2012 renewal met considerable criticism from conservatives who were opposed to its provisions being extended to LGBT individuals and battered immigrant women. While the bill passed through the Senate, it was struck down in a Republican-dominated House.

While American women are now without a legal safety net in the event of violence, I find myself wondering about a community which VAWA protected that we rarely discuss in our day-to-day reproductive justice dialogues: Native American women.

Here are some sobering statistics for you:

  • 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes.
  • 39% will be subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes.
  • On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.

The stories surrounding violence against Native American women are even more harrowing than the figures. In an investigation of a serial rapist on an Arizona reservation failed because of bureaucracy. Three years prior in 2007, Amnesty International stated that we were failing to protect our nation’s indigenous women from violence. Without VAWA in place, I shudder to think that things may become much worse for our nation’s original First Women.

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