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The Violence Against Women Act: 1994 – 2014

We are all familiar with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), at the very least because of its prominence in the news over the past year.  The controversy surrounding its renewal provides insight into larger cultural trends, specifically with regards to the work we do at Compass Center.  As such, this is a good opportunity to review the history of the act and its importance nationally and on the state level.

In 1994, Joe Biden introduced VAWA as a senator.  The act was a result of community efforts throughout the 80s and 90s, and as such, placed great importance on community-level anti-violence campaigns.  In addition to providing rape shield laws (prevents a victim’s sexual history to be brought up during cross-examinations) on a federal level, VAWA also provides support for a range of community violence prevention programs like those found at the Compass Center.  VAWA also ensures that victims of sexual assault do not have to pay for their own medical examinations.  Additionally, VAWA provides funding that goes towards training more than 500,000 law enforcement professionals to deal with domestic violence cases.  In these ways, VAWA directly affects our clients.

VAWA was up for renewal in 2012, and its opposition demonstrates the attitudes of social conservatives in the United States.  Though the Senate voted to reauthorize VAWA with some extended protections, the House rejected the reauthorization and instead provided its own version; the House’s proposed act limited crucial protections for Native women living on reservations, couples experiencing violence in same-sex relationships, and undocumented victims of domestic violence.  The legislative battle continued into 2013, until late February when the inclusive version of the bill finally passed the Senate. President Obama reauthorized the Act on March 7, 2013.

The House’s attempts to limit the efficacy of VAWA target the most vulnerable populations.  Victims of domestic violence who are in same-sex relationships are already less likely to reach out for help due to wide-spread stigma; legally prohibiting them from receiving protection would only further institutionalize this stigma.

Additionally, Native women are more likely to experience domestic violence than either their White or Black counterparts.  Not only that, they are more likely to be survivors of interracial assault, which results in limited ability to prosecute White offenders who perpetrate violence on reservations.  For these reasons, VAWA’s protection of Native communities is crucial.  North Carolinian practitioners especially should take note: North Carolina has the 6th largest Native population in the United States, with more than 110,000 Native Americans living in the state as of 2004.

Fortunately, the version of VAWA that was reauthorized is an inclusive version consistent with the vision and mission of the Compass Center.  The fight for an expanded reauthorized version demonstrates that sometimes, working for under-served populations means facing widespread institutional resistance.  However, the reauthorization is a chance for us to see our values reflected by our government, despite a long fight.

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