By Christina Thomas
Living in a world against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic means we are now used to delays – delays in postal services, delays in grocery store restocks, and delayed events, such as the Olympics or school graduations, just to name a few. And while some things begin to get back on track, one key delay remains: a delay in the Senate passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021, otherwise known as VAWA.
While VAWA is typically reauthorized every five years, it has so far taken eight years (its last reauthorization was in 2013) for the most recent reauthorization to pass in the House (HR 1620, passed in March 2021) and it has not yet been introduced in Senate. As we continue to grapple with a pandemic that has brought with it economic and social instability, devastating losses, and uncertainty, VAWA cannot be delayed any longer.
VAWA was first signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994. Its aim was to create and support comprehensive, cost-effective responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking and since its enactment, we have seen drastically improved federal, tribal, state, and local responses to these crimes. In fact, since VAWA’s passage in 1994, rates of domestic violence have decreased by 63 percent. Additionally, between 2014-2016, VAWA helped fund nearly 2 million shelter nights, 600,000 hotline calls, victim advocacy for almost 300,000 unique individuals, and legal services for almost 100,000 survivors. These statistics show that VAWA works, yet these services remain in jeopardy of receiving the funding they need the longer the Senate delays passing a reauthorization bill.
Without reauthorizing VAWA, not only will funding for life-saving services be in danger, but certain groups will lack sufficient protection from abusers and stalkers, such as members of the LGBTQ+ community, Native women, and women of color.
When looking at domestic violence incidents that occur each year, Native women are victimized at higher rates than any other population in the United States. It has been estimated that 56 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes and a similar proportion will be subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes. Under HR 1620, the jurisdiction of tribal authorities would be expanded to include non-Indians who commit a crime on tribal land, and funding is preserved for crucial services that can be used by members of indigenous communities who face domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking, key provisions that must be included in a Senate version of the bill.
Communities of color are also disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence. According to a study by the National Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), 9.5 percent of black women have experienced stalking and 41.2 percent have been physically abused by a partner in their lifetime. Additionally, based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), members of the Black/African/African American communities have the highest rates of intimate partner violence (4.7 per 1,000) when compared to Whites (3.9 per 1,000) and Hispanics (2.3 per 1,000). When passed by the House in March, HR 1620 addressed these alarming statistics by dedicating funding to the Culturally Specific Services Program and it is essential the Senate reauthorization does the same.
We also know when firearms become involved in a domestic violence situation, things often turn deadly. In fact, domestic violence claims at least 2,000 lives each year and many of these homicides are committed with firearms. Frighteningly, almost 60 women are shot and killed each month by current or former intimate partners, and abusers with access to firearms are 5 times more likely to kill a partner than those without access. HR 1620 seeks to address this disparity by limiting access to firearms for those who have a history of committing intimate partner violence, a move that must also be made in a Senate version of the reauthorization to help save the lives of victims and survivors.
While VAWA has been successful since its initial passage in 1994, rates of domestic violence in the United States still remain high with, on average 20 people per minute being affected by it. This equates to about 10 million individuals per year, with numbers being even higher for members of transgender and gender-queer communities. With sexual violence, such as harassment and sexual assault, remaining a pervasive problem, particularly on college campuses, in the military, and in the workplace, it’s time the Senate reauthorizes VAWA to ensure survivors have access to the lifesaving services they so desperately need.