Combating Domestic Violence

On Feb. 2, legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee by a party-line vote of ten to eight, with all eight Republican committee members voting against it. Given the proven track record of VAWA, such partisan opposition is difficult to understand. The original law was passed by Congress in 1994 and was renewed in 2000 and 2005 with strong bipartisan support. Since its original passage, the legislation has facilitated a more than 50 percent increase in reporting of domestic violence. The reauthorization measure includes better protections for LGBT victims of domestic violence, expanded tribal jurisdiction concerning domestic violence, and an increased quota cap for the granting of special visas to undocumented immigrants who report as victims. Senator Chuck Grassley spoke for the Republican membership of the Senate Judiciary Committee when he explicitly voiced opposition to expanding VAWA’s purview out of a fear that the bill is trying to “protect too many victims.” His argument is unfounded and doesn’t face the realities and data surrounding domestic violence.

VAWA’s reauthorization legislation includes provisions that enable LGBT victims of domestic violence to report incidents without fear of discrimination at help centers. It also provides grants for programs providing services to LGBT victims of domestic violence. Senator Grassley complained that, “Advocates of this provision haven’t produced data that shelters have refused to provide services for these reasons.” Such an allegation ignores a recent report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs which states “LGBTQH survivors of intimate partner violence encounter a lack of access to safety and support when they experience violence.  More survivors in 2010 (44.6 percent) were turned away from shelter than in 2009 (34.8 percent)... Additionally, in 2010, NCAVP saw 54.4 percent of survivors seeking an order of protection were denied one.” It would be perplexing for Senator Grassley and his Republican co-workers to continue resisting the reauthorization of VAWA on the grounds that a LGBT anti-discrimination provision is “only a political statement.”

The reauthorization of VAWA grants special jurisdiction for tribal governments to prosecute domestic violence offenders who may or may not be associated with the tribe. Senator Grassley is concerned that such a provision “needs more thought,” asking, “Why would Congress, should it decide for the first time to make such a change, do so on a bill to reauthorize VAWA?” The answer is actually fairly straightforward. A report released by the Department of Justice revealed that in the U.S., “the rate of violent victimization among American Indian women was more than double that among all women.” In Amnesty International’s 2007 report on sexual violence against Native Americans, a full chapter details the many ways in which the overly complex issues of jurisdiction are exploited by non-tribal perpetrators of violence against women on tribal land. A group of professors from the Departments of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware and University of North Carolina wrote in a research report for the Department of Justice that “less than half of all violent victimizations against American Indian and Alaska Native women are ever reported to police.” Given the evidence, it is understandable why Susan B. Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice, applauded the special jurisdiction measure as necessary to “strengthen tribal responses.” Senator Grassley’s support for the jurisdictional status quo does not recognize the level of harm for Native American women that such bureaucracy abets.

Many victims of domestic violence who are undocumented immigrants fear reporting incidents because of the risk for deportation. VAWA has had longstanding protections for any undocumented immigrant who comes forward to report an incident, allowing for the granting of up to 10,000 special visas for victims of violence. The reauthorization raises this cap to 15,000 special visas. Senator Grassley objects that raising the cap would allow VAWA to be "manipulated as a pathway to U.S. citizenship for foreign con artists and criminals." The Senator’s fear-mongering is unwarranted for an already highly selective application process that strongly suggests undocumented immigrants provide “evidence of the abuse, such as reports and affidavits from police, judges and other court officials, medical personnel, school officials, clergy, social workers, and other social service agency personnel” if they wish to receive a special visa.

Senator Grassley’s objections to reauthorizing VAWA are insubstantial. The eight Republican senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee and any of their colleagues who are planning to vote against the legislation on the grounds that it protects “too many victims” ought to reconsider their position before the law reaches the floor for a vote. In the 18 years since VAWA was first passed, it has provided highly successful data-driven solutions to domestic violence—now is not the time to stop its remarkable progress.


Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a classics concentrator in Eliot House.