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A survivor’s perspective: the Violence Against Women Act

Denise Harle, an attorney with the conservative Christian law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, poses for a photo outside the Hope Center women’s shelter in downtown, Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. Hope Center is suing the city of Anchorage to block it from requiring the faith-based shelter to accept transgender women. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

As we end our observance of National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, I am disheartened that the once-bipartisan Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a much-needed lifeline for abused women, has been turned on its head and no longer focuses on ensuring that women have a safe place to escape their abuse. Bowing to the gender ideology agenda, the current version enacted by the Biden administration includes provisions that limit women’s access to services and enable violence against women in the very shelters that should be their haven.

I am a survivor of domestic abuse. As Democrats hesitate to define what a woman is, I am dismayed that they neglect the battered women they once sought to aid and protect through VAWA. In the name of woke ideology, my colleagues have prioritized the feelings of biological males over the need for trauma-informed care that ensures the health and safety of women who have suffered violence.

In his proclamation naming April 2022 as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, President Biden touted his historic success as the original author of VAWA, which, indeed, has played a critical role in improving the response to and treatment of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Originally, VAWA was a powerful bipartisan tool to protect battered women and provide them with necessary resources. Biden ensured his recent proclamation listed some of its most bipartisan provisions and overlooked the newer measures that will reduce resources for abused women and could lead to their re-victimization as they attempt to heal and regain control of their lives.

Women who have been abused are facing the darkest and most tragic moment of their lives. They deserve justice and a safe place to recover both physically and emotionally from their abuse. Domestic violence shelters are meant to be a haven amid the storm, where women can find vital security and resources. Shelters’ No. 1 priority must be the safety and recovery of the women in their care. Tragically, because of changes to the original text of VAWA over time, if shelters seek VAWA grants to help fund their important work, they must increasingly abandon this paramount priority.

For example, as a condition of receiving funds, women’s shelters must admit biological males who identify as women into their women-only spaces. As a result, recently abused and traumatized women may be forced to share a bathroom, shower, or even sleeping space with biological males. This could compound their trauma and lead to re-victimization. 

We have already seen this happen in California, where federal law forced a shelter to house biological males who identified as women alongside biological females. Nine women suffered sexual harassment, and the shelter failed to protect them. They sued but no justice was served. For most women, it is a wrenching decision to leave their abusive situation; if they do not have a safe place to escape, they are more likely to remain with their abuser, which is all too often fatal.

The push to force shelters to accept gender identity ideology has made even non-federally funded facilities targets for legal battles over the issue.

For example, the Downtown Hope Center in Alaska refuses federal funds because of the mandates attached, yet it has faced two court battles because it does not allow biological men into its overnight facilities. Despite losing its first case, the City of Anchorage targeted the Hope Center a second time. Fortunately, the federal court for the District of Alaska ruled that the shelter is not a “public accommodation” and therefore cannot be required to allow men to sleep beside women recovering from abuse.

How many more lawsuits will target faith-based shelters like Downtown Hope Center? How many shelters have been silenced and pressured to compromise their services for women by Washington’s mandates?

Many domestic violence shelters are already pressed for resources and should be able to focus them on helping women recover from abuse. They shouldn’t have to worry about ideologically motivated litigation.

It is important to note that VAWA has never barred any victim, regardless of identity, from receiving victim services; and has never prohibited funds from going to organizations or states that specialized in services for LGBT-identifying persons. None of the harmful provisions in VAWA are necessary.

Although men and transgender-identifying individuals are victims of domestic violence, we must remember that women are by far the largest population who tragically face domestic abuse, violence, sexual assault, and other heinous crimes. Ideological mandates should not tie the hands of grantees on the ground, who understand better than anyone in Washington, D.C. the needs of the populations they serve.

The Democrats’ version of the Violence Against Women Act fails to live up to its purpose of protecting women and must be corrected. We must allow service providers to provide the help that is so desperately needed and cut the ideological red tape that binds their hands.

Debbie Lesko represents Arizona’s 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tags Biden transgender vawa violence against women act

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