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on the radar: VAWA 2005

9.9.05 | For the past 26 years, Pat Reuss has worked in Washington, D.C., on behalf of women’s rights and equality. In 1991, she was hired by NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (now Legal Momentum) to set up their D.C. policy office and work to get the Violence Against Women Act passed.

Reuss built and coordinated the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence and led the effort to pass VAWA in 1994 and get it reauthorized in 2000. She is currently working at NOW as a senior policy analyst promoting grassroots advocacy on women’s rights issues and legislation, including VAWA 2005.

Before coming to D.C., Reuss was an activist in Colorado, Montana and Indiana. She is a single mother of three adult sons.

Ms.: What is the Violence Against Women Act?

The Violence Against Women Act is national legislation written in 1990 which brought together groups and individuals from across the nation who were working to provide services to battered and raped women. The bill that they helped write funded programs, education and training, as well as services, for six years at a total of $1.6 billion. It was just the beginning of our national and concerted effort to prevent and eventually stop battering and sexual violence against girls and women, boys and men, old and young.

Much of the money went to train law enforcement officials and help communities and medical facilities deal more appropriately and helpfully with the incidences of violence that occurred in homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, etc.

In 2000, VAWA needed to be “reauthorized,” and some new programs and initiatives were included in the bill, although prevention efforts and working with “underserved” communities still wasn’t fully addressed. A second bi-partisan effort passed the bill with $3.2 billion allocated for 5 years.

Today, VAWA needs to be reauthorized again, since it officially “ends” on Sept. 30 of this year (view history).

Ms.: Why, in 2005, do we need a Violence Against Women Act?

Even though great strides have been made in the legal, political and social arena dealing with sexual and domestic violence, much is still left to be done. We know that when whole communities take a stand against gender violence, the number of instances of this crime go down. Yes, there has been a lessening of reported cases of violence against women, including battering and rape, than there were 10 years ago when we first passed VAWA, but the campaign to eradicate this often deadly epidemic needs to be continuous and powerful.

Ms.: How might the VAWA of 2005 be improved for the next decade? What preventative measures should be added and how can more communities be reached?

Advocates working in this field -- women and men, researchers and providers, educators and doctors, sheriffs and employers -- all tell us that it takes not only money and the threat of criminal sanctions to stop the violence, but that early education and intervention can stem the violence. As a nation, we have yet to truly address the prevention aspects, and that challenge still remains.

VAWA 2005 does address some of the unmet needs that have been identified in the past decade of VAWA’s existence. Child and teen violence are being addressed, as well as housing and job protection for survivors of violence.

The legislation that has the best chance of passing in these severe economic and partisan political times is a House Department of Defense reauthorization bill that has VAWA sections included. While it certainly will continue to fund and support the vital programs and services, it will not use this important milestone opportunity to enhance and improve on the original intent of VAWA. Funding is liable to be under $4 billion for another 5 years, not even meeting increased cost of living and inflation levels.

The ideal bill is H.R. 3171, endorsed by NOW, which attempts to come closer to what is needed to expand the outreach and impact of our national effort to end sexual and domestic violence.

One piece in this bill deals with emergency contraception for rape victims, which should be something everyone supports but has been politicized by the anti-women groups.

When Congress comes back to work after Labor Day, everyone should contact their Senators and Representatives and ask them to sponsor ALL the bills. NOW's alert will help them do just that. Using their zip code, it will thank someone who is already a sponsor and encourage others to add their names to the bills as supporters.

Back in 1991, when I first started working on this effort and pulled together the coalition to pass VAWA, we had no e-mail, and the fax paper curled up as you were trying to make a copy. Now, instant and sophisticated communications using the web are commonplace, but good old fashioned phone calls, letters and visits are still needed.

Ms.: What are some signs of VAWA’s success since its passage in 1994?

Certainly, public awareness has increased, and victims are less hesitant to report crimes of domestic and sexual violence. Law enforcement and medical providers are more aware and can better handle this violence, and communities are bringing together various agencies to attempt to address all the aspects of violence. The money from VAWA is not enough to fully fund shelters and crisis lines, but it has helped keep many of them open and able to provide more services. VAWA also has helped address the violence against immigrant families, older women, women living in Indian country, and the cultural barriers that many women of color face as they attempt to deal with and prevent violence in their communities. And reported instances of domestic and sexual violence have been slowly dropping.

But there is still a long way to go. If nothing else, there are now many more agencies and organizations dealing with the issue than 30 years ago when a handful of women in their communities collected donations to start the first battered women's shelters and rape crisis hot lines.

Ms.: Despite bipartisan political support for VAWA, Phyllis Schlafly recently wrote:

“If Republicans are looking for a way to return to their principles of limited government and reduced federal spending, a good place to start would be rejection of the coming reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. It's a mystery why Republicans continue to put a billion dollars a year of taxpayers' money into the hands of radical feminists who use it to preach their anti-marriage and anti-male ideology, promote divorce, corrupt the family court system, and engage in liberal political advocacy.”

Are Schlafly’s reactionary comments indicative of conservative attacks against VAWA? How do other opponents attempt to undermine the social and political realities?

Good question. They appear very angry that girls and women -- and men
-- are speaking out and taking ownership of what was once a very personal "dirty little secret" and demanding that it stop.

And yes, many of the shelters, crisis centers and hot lines are run by people who's job is to speak out on behalf of their clients to try to improve their circumstances. That appears to make them "radical feminists" using taxpayer's money to promote a narrow agenda, according to Schafly who delights in the politics of extremism and name calling.

The Independent Women’s Forum also objects to VAWA and the use of federal funds, but feels perfectly comfortable accepting government grant money to contract out an Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative, which doesn't appear to be working at this writing.

But even VAWA's detractors would be the first to counsel their family or friends who are experiencing sexual or domestic violence to seek aid and support from the very groups, providers and hotlines that they rail against. We should challenge them to stand with us in a mutual effort to end this violence.

Ms.: The Bush administration often talks about improving the rights of women in other countries. In what ways is reauthorization of the VAWA connected to attempts to foster women’s rights worldwide?

Isn't it ironic to hear the president and his wife talk about the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as good for the women of those countries -- that our military might will prevent women in these countries from being raped and tortured and killed? Have the "rape rooms" in Iraq been eliminated or just moved to places like Abu Gharib prison? And why is it called genocide when the men are killed in Darfur, but when the women are raped it is portrayed as some form of collateral damage during the civil and religious war that is raging there in the Sudan? And why isn't the president equally concerned about the hundreds of thousands of rapes that are reported right here in this country?

Until the sexual abuse and violence is addressed universally, we cannot claim to care about preventing it in one country, one region, one city, one military academy, one athletic department and not tackle it as a whole. VAWA 2005 doesn't deal with this. World leaders won't and can't deal with this. It is our next big challenge. Neither President Bush -- nor anyone else -- can take any credit for improving the rights of women if they are still not safe and free from sexual and domestic violence. (For further reading, visit the Center for Women's Global Leadership or read an interview with its executive director, Charlotte Bunch, on the implications of a rights-based approach for the struggle against violence against women; see also Amnesty's Stop Violence Against Women campaign.)

VAWA 2005 certainly will help continue the important work in our communities of providing services and attention to victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence, but when it passes and is signed by the president, advocates should take little time to celebrate before beginning the next round of action, legislative and policy proposals, and open debates around the need to prevent and eventually end the violence.

Feminist Daily Wire on VAWA Hearings>>