Mallika Kaur is a Staff Attorney at CORA.
As I see it, the noise around the Violence Against Women Act is not (really) about the name itself, or the seeming protection of one group over another, the price tag, tribal courts, gay rights, states’ rights, or even constitutionality. At the heart of the debate is still a growing pain in our society. We are growing, sometimes painfully slowly, to truly accept that gendered violence is not a “private matter.”
At the crux of all the (created) confusion around the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) are the same myths we combat here at CORA everyday: that certain forms of violence are quite regrettable, that these kinds of violence are not really like other crimes, that claims of such violence are open to interpretation and often having a complicating “other side.”
But our House of Representatives (now stalling the reauthorization of VAWA, after the Senate finally approved reauthorization), or even those think tanks attacking the validity and efficacy of VAWA, cannot and have not been able to blatantly claim that gendered violence is simply “private.”
And in this simple fact, I see reflected the success of VAWA.
Since 1994, this vital legislation has made a discussion of prevention and intervention into more “private” crimes more acceptable. While it has crucially funded services such as hotlines and shelters and law enforcement trainings, as well as cross-agency collaborations and creative coordinated community responses, a large part of VAWA’s success has been in providing validity and legitimacy to survivors and their advocates and allies.
Clients we work with at CORA everyday are neither liars nor opportunists, they are neither looking for charity nor pity, they are neither man-hating nor retributive… but they are survivors of severe trauma. And they do seek freedom from fear and freedom to finally, after years of being told otherwise, state their own choices and be heard with respect. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) recognizes this right for survivors and its protections (such as restraining orders, DV hotlines, shelters) provide just enough support for survivors to seek, familiarize themselves with, and then try on this re-gained freedom.
And since it was first passed in 1994, then reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, VAWA now also reflects the importance of prevention, to protect and strengthen the freedoms all people should enjoy, free of violence.
Today, in 2013, the very delayed reauthorization of VAWA seems to break on partisan lines (something we all take for granted in this political climate anyway).
But this entire debate is largely fueled by the fact that our society is still learning to become comfortable with discussing and rejecting gendered violence. Making use of this discomfort (and of course the fact that few people ever read lengthy pieces of legislation!), one prime opposition to VAWA now seems to be backed by the very name of the Act: a strong negative statement (never mind that it is against Violence) and identifying only “women” as recipients is apparently quite rankling! And it is convenient to use this to spread misinformation that VAWA is only protecting and favoring women, over others.
A 1990s baby, VAWA retains its original name, even though its substance is much broader (not to suggest issues concerning women are not broad enough to begin with!) and encompasses our entire society. It is correcting for and ensuring representation of different gender identities and sexual orientations, as well as reflecting more clearly that its mandate is to protect human rights.
And what is clearest about VAWA is that it protects all of us—whether we are survivors or not.
To those fighting VAWA due to its facial “women-only” focus, it might be a helpful reminder that the provisions of VAWA are gender-neutral—that is, despite its name, all the protections apply to men and women.
But then again, this might not in fact help. Because the real fight by those towing such argumentative lines is actually against recognizing that violence against women is by definition also against our entire society:
As a victim suffers, invoking an avalanche of various fears in her family, misses school, work, child-care responsibilities, and has to turn to courts and hospitals and other social services, there is negative impact on her family, her dependents, her parents, her employers, her colleagues, our health systems, our school systems, our economy.
VAWA—its name or its substances—is not the problem. But the problems in society that it seeks to alter are still quite entrenched. A vote from the House of Representatives will be testament not only to VAWA’s legitimacy, but to its legitimate claim that every family, every child, every man, and indeed every woman, has a right to be free.