• Kilhah St. Fort

The Violence Against Women Act Still Isn’t Reauthorized

Updated: Mar 19

In the early weeks of the Coronavirus pandemic, the National Domestic Violence Hotline saw a drop in the number of calls being received. Compared to the typical 2,000 calls per day, the hotline received 951 callers between March 10th and 24th. Good thing, right?


Wrong.


The sudden drop in calls wasn’t the result of a miraculous decision by abusers to stop inflicting harm. Rather, the mandatory stay-at-home orders limited access to the hotline. Being in close proximity to an abusive partner makes victims feel less safe about reaching out. It was especially difficult since abusers began using the pandemic as a way of furthering their abuse. From withholding sanitary products to threatening harm at the sight of a single cough, the virus has allowed abusers to gain more power. Domestic violence is a pandemic within the pandemic.


Concerned activists did everything in their power to provide aid under the COVID-19 restrictions. While this made an impact, a larger impact could have come from stronger legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), a landmark bipartisan United States federal law known for “improving criminal, legal, and community-based responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.” The law is essential to American society, but it has not yet been reauthorized since its expiration in December 2018.


The reason for the delay: partisan tension.


The Violence Against Women Act of 2013 was set to expire at the end of 2018. In preparation for the upcoming expiration date, the members of the House of Representatives created revisions to improve upon the bill and prepare it for reauthorization. When House Democrats proposed their plan, it was noticeably filled with more “liberal” revisions. However, the amendment that stirred the most conflict was an attempt to end the “boyfriend” loophole.


Previously, the act prohibited spouses or former spouses convicted of abuse from buying firearms. Democrats decided to add a provision that restricts anyone convicted of domestic abuse, stalking, and assault from obtaining firearms, thus putting married and unmarried abusers on the same level in terms of gun control.


Many House Republicans called the new provision a violation of the Second Amendment. Republican support for the proposal began to dwindle. In turn, House Democrats cited the National Rifle Association (NRA)’s disapproval as the cause of Republican’s hesitancy. Soon the House was in debate over the political influence of the NRA rather than the reauthorization of the VAWA.


In April 2019, the Democrat proposed bill was passed by the House in a vote of 263-158. Only thirty-three House Republicans voted in favor.


The gun control provision was too risky for easy approval in the GOP-ruled Senate. Regardless, two bipartisan lawmakers, Sen. Joni Ernst R.-Iowa and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., announced they would write their own version of the bill to ensure that it continues to have the bipartisan support it always had.


As it turned out, the partnership didn’t live up to its expectations. For nearly a month, talk of the bill on the Senate floor was stalled due to increased public discourse over the provision. Tired of waiting, Feinstein wrote up a compromise-free bill. Ernst soon did the same.


Both proposals include provisions that would do wonders in providing support for survivors and holding abusers responsible. However, neither legislator showed willingness to set aside personal beliefs.


Feinstein’s proposal permitted tribal access to federal crime information databases to help hold non-Indigenous perpetrators responsible for acts of violence against Indigenous women. It also included key provisions to improve the treatment of LGBTQ+ survivors. However, it kept the gun-control provision the same. On the other hand, Ernst’s proposal managed to address female genital mutilation, a topic Democrats did not mention. She also was able to close the Law Enforcement Consent Loophole. Yet, she kept in the boyfriend loophole and excluded any provisions regarding protections for LGBTQ survivors.


Following the presentation of the two proposals, politicians and public figures of both parties participated in degrading one another. Democrats were called out for politicizing the bill and trying to win election votes, while Republicans were called out for bending to the NRA’s will and disregarding marginalized groups.


Although some accusations may hold true to certain members of either party, the only way to describe this discourse is distracting. The main issue regarding VAWA reauthorization shouldn’t have become about NRA political influence or grabs at election votes. Both parties should have focused on the real issue: violence against women.


Due to their negligence, many women had to endure abusive situations during the pandemic without proper federal support. The national lockdown has passed but the chance to create and pass a truly bipartisan VAWA hasn’t.

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