Sitting in the first House debate on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a critical law in the fight to end domestic abuse and sexual assault, I couldn’t believe the partisan spectacle. Intimate partner violence is an epidemic that impacts all of us. If we focus on the purpose of the law — to provide a lifeline to victims, hold perpetrators accountable, and reduce intimate partner violence in America — it should be obvious to every single lawmaker what needs to be done.
VAWA was passed in 1994 with bipartisan support and named domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes. It also created the Office of Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice and essential training programs for law enforcement and judges, encouraging a community-based model to support victims and families as they seek safety. But we didn’t know everything about the incidence or dynamics of abuse in 1994, and as we learn more, VAWA has to evolve with us.
Every five years, during reauthorization, we have the opportunity to improve upon it. In past reauthorizations, stalking and dating violence were added to the list of crimes. The need to support immigrant victims in reaching out to police and serving as witnesses in police investigations led to another update. Nondiscrimination provisions were also adopted. Although VAWA had always applied to any victim, regardless of gender, the new language helped to ensure that every victim could get help when they need it.
This Women’s History Month, Democratic and Republican cosponsors introduced a moderate reauthorization bill, HR 1585, offering only minor updates. Shockingly, it faced opposition. Some members dedicated significant time to make their point that transgender victims of sexual assault and domestic violence should not benefit from protection under VAWA. This position is incongruous with the goal of ending violence and holding perpetrators accountable.
The bill before Congress already represents a compromise position taken by advocates. Immigrant survivors, in particular, remain especially susceptible as they continue to navigate the already-complex and ever-changing immigration process. Other vulnerable groups need more robust services and support. The list of demands from victims and advocates is long. Yet, we have put all of those to the side, working closely with members from both sides of the aisle for over a year, hoping for a bill that would quickly gain bipartisan support and avoid leaving victims stranded. We are focused on what is practical and best for the people who need protection from VAWA. And our representatives should be too.
This year, 10 million people will experience abuse — that’s 20 people every single minute. Intimate partner violence accounts for an incredible 15 percent of all violent crime in America. And because of the mental and physical health impacts, as well as missed educational opportunities, homelessness, and job loss, the cost to our economy is significant.
We cannot forget just how crucial VAWA is to all survivors of violence. The incidence of violence has gone down and reporting has gone up since its passage. It’s working, but it must continue to have robust bipartisan support. This is an important moment for lawmakers to show their true colors and tell us where they stand in the fight to end violence against women.
As the #MeToo movement is showing us, none of us is immune, and so many of us are affected. So, stand with survivors, stand with all of us who need VAWA reauthorized, and get it done. I’m asking you: are you with us, or against us?
Archi Pyati is chief of policy for the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on helping immigrant women and children.