House of Pain
This article went to press in January 2013. A February 2013 update is at the bottom.
2012 marked the year that violence against women became a partisan issue. The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, was the first comprehensive federal effort to combat such violence. The landmark law strengthened the legal response to domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, as well as directed critical funding toward services for survivors. Over the years, it’s provided more than $4 billion to local governments and nonprofits to support programs like rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and legal assistance for survivors.
The VAWA has always enjoyed bipartisan support, but the law was allowed to expire for the first time ever when the 112th Congress wrapped up last January without reauthorizing it.
Why? Apparently, the problem lay in trying to extend the law’s protections to some 30 million more women. In April 2012, the Senate passed a reauthorization bill that included new protections for three particularly vulnerable groups. Agencies that receive VAWA funding wouldn’t be able to discriminate against LGBTQ survivors. Undocumented survivors—who often fear deportation if they come forward—would have received increased access to legal status and work authorization through special U visas. And Native American tribal courts would be granted limited authority to prosecute crimes committed by non–Native Americans on their lands.
But the Republican-led House—claiming that these provisions were “politically driven”—stripped them away when it passed its own version of the reauthorization bill last May. House leadership refused to even vote on a bill that included the tribal provision.
Considering the shockingly high rates of sexual and domestic violence faced by Native women, the House GOP’s actions are nothing short of criminal. Native women are two and a half times more likely to be assaulted and more than twice as likely to be stalked as other women in the United States. One in three Native women will be raped, three out of five will be physically assaulted, and two in five will be victims of domestic violence in their lifetimes.
And as it stands now, non–Native Americans who commit these crimes are able to do so with little fear of reprisal. Tribal courts don’t have jurisdiction over non–Native defendants and the federal justice system is slow to respond. In recent years, federal prosecutors have declined to take on 67 percent of the sexual abuse and related cases sent to them from Indian country.
We’re not talking about a small number of cases slipping through the cracks, either. Non–Native Americans are responsible for nearly 90 percent of violent crimes against Native women, according to the Indian Law Resource Center.
And many aggressors know they can effectively act with impunity.
The Senate’s bill would only partially fix the problem. While tribal courts would be able to prosecute cases of domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders on Native land where a non-Native perpetrator has clear ties to the tribe, they’d still be powerless to punish sexual violence committed by strangers. But even this small step away from relying on a negligent criminal justice system and toward empowering Native tribes to deal with violence in their own communties was a deal breaker for Congress.
In some ways, this reflects a deeper problem with the VAWA’s approach to violence against women—one that is often overly reliant on the U.S. legal system. While ostensibly committed to building a “coordinated community response” to violence against women, the law privileges a pro-criminalization strategy. The original legislation was wrapped in the largest crime bill in U.S. history, and more than half of the initial funding was allocated to law-enforcement efforts. This focus means, for example, that U visas are only available to undocumented survivors who are willing to cooperate with a criminal investigation. Critics of the legislation have argued that relying on the state to protect women from violence can be counterproductive, particularly for poor communities of color. As Angela Davis asked in 2000, “Can a state that is thoroughly infused with racism, male dominance, class-bias, and homophobia, and that constructs itself in and through violence act to minimize violence in the lives of women?”
For Native women, the answer has clearly been “no.” But the Senate’s bill is a step in the right direction, and now it’s up to the 113th Congress to pass it. If they’re serious about making the VAWA work for all women, any compromise on the tribal provision should be off the table.
Update, Feb 14 2013:
The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill was quickly re-introduced in the new Congress. The new bill, which was passed by the Senate in a 78-22 vote on February 12, 2013, is largely the same as last year's but, in a procedural concession to the House GOP, does not include the proposed increase in U visas for undocumented immigrants. Now it's again up to the House to approve it—and again the main sticking point seems to be the provision adding protections for Native American women. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is in negotiations with Vice President Biden, but it's unclear when an agreement will be reached—or what it will look like. Meanwhile, some House Republicans, no doubt recognizing that holding up the VAWA is not the best look for their party, are now voicing their support for finally getting it done. Follow the Save Wįyąbi Project for more on how Native women are fighting violence.
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