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The Senate must reauthorize Violence Against Women Act

The need for a robust and responsive Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is as timely and urgent as it was 26 years ago when we arrived at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to begin implementing the original law. 

Since then, VAWA’s 19 grant programs and $9 billion expended in grants and cooperative agreements have served millions of survivors in Indian Country, the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories. Being gender neutral — while recognizing that women have been disproportionately harmed — VAWA has served victims of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Additionally, the act has served survivors with disabilities, those who are immigrants, those who live on college campuses, and survivors in many underserved communities including rural, LGBT, faith-based and communities of color.

Among the greatest lessons we’ve learned since VAWA became law is that safety and accountability look different for each community and for each individual that VAWA serves. For instance, since it was first enacted, VAWA has included provisions aimed at ensuring tribal governments have the resources and authority they need to bring safety and justice to their communities. In addition, VAWA has always included immigration provisions aimed at reducing the ability of harm-doers to leverage the threat of deportation against victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

The bipartisan House bill, The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021, was developed by domestic violence and sexual assault advocates, including one of the authors of this piece, and draws from extensive outreach to the programs that work with survivors and feedback from survivors. It builds on previous reauthorizations by ensuring that tribes have criminal jurisdiction over certain people who aren’t Native Americans. This would strengthen a tribe’s ability to protect victims — living on tribal land— from sexual violence, child abuse, stalking and trafficking, and it would also protect law enforcement officers against assault, as is already the case with regard to domestic violence survivors. 

Just as we’ve made improvements in VAWA that are specific to the needs of Native American survivors, we continue to listen to what other survivors are sharing. Increasingly, some communities are asking for non-criminal justice responses. This has been most evident in our increased support of civil legal remedies and understanding the significance of giving survivors options. As we continue to support and respect the rights of those who want criminal justice and civil legal options, we must likewise be responsive to calls for more survivor-centered and survivor-driven approaches, including restorative practices, more commonly known as restorative justice.

The restorative practices language in the House bill builds on work already in progress at the DOJ, including the Office for Victims of Crime, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office of Justice Programs-funded National Center for Restorative Justice. Initiated by survivors and responsive to their needs, restorative practices programming gives survivors the option to seek non-carceral accountability from harm-doers. Survivors who are co-parenting or want supportive services (like substance or alcohol abuse counseling) for a harm-doer may prefer to pursue restorative practice approaches. Restorative practice is also increasingly looked to as an option on campuses. Restorative practice always requires the consent of both the harmed party and the harm-doer, and significantly, the willingness of the harm-doer to accept responsibility for the harm that they’ve caused. Survivors who ask for restorative practice options can choose to have legal counsel and/or family members assist them. They frequently report great satisfaction with the restorative practice processes and outcomes. We are excited to see strong support in the newly released Biden administration budget for both existing programming that supports communities, advocates and police alongside this important addition that lifts up approaches that pay significant dividends in terms of survivor autonomy and decline in recidivism.  

More than a year into the pandemic, we know that stress has compounded the trauma that survivors are experiencing. We also know that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color has exacerbated the impact of domestic violence and sexual assault within them. Domestic violence and sexual assault service providers have been on the frontlines, supporting survivors throughout the pandemic and we are grateful for their service and how their experiences have shaped the reauthorization bill. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 represents the bill that this nation’s network of service providers have told us that survivors desperately and urgently need.

The Biden administration’s support is unsurprising given that then-Sen. Biden, working with advocates, drafted and worked to pass the first Violence Against Women Act as part of the 1994 Crime Bill. We are pleased to see that it contains funding for vital existing Health and Human Services-funded programs, including crisis hotlines and shelters for survivors, and important new programming, including cash assistance for survivors, many of whom, research tells us, lived economically precarious lives even before the pandemic descended. Finally, the budget request includes funding for the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen the ability of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to process VAWA-related immigration applications. 

VAWA is currently three years past due for reauthorization. We urge the Senate to build on the strong bipartisan bill passed by the House, listen to the needs of survivors, and send it to the president’s desk swiftly.

Bonnie J. Campbell  is a former Iowa attorney general and was the first director of the Office on Violence Against Women. She currently practices law in Des Moines, Iowa.

Lisalyn R. Jacobs is CEO of Just Solutions, a strategic consulting firm for nonprofits. She is a member of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, a coalition focused on the development of federal policy and legislation on domestic, sexual, dating violence and stalking. She held a number of senior positions with the U.S. Justice Department between 1995 and 2000.

Tags civil rights Domestic violence Sexual assault Stalking VAWA Violence Against Women Act Womens rights

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