Much has been made of the #MeToo movement—and rightfully so—but an important discussion central to the movement has been sidelined. Again.
This time, the safety of women has been subsumed in a strange debate about security at our country’s southern border. Amid unpaid furloughs, federal employees who are working without pay, and shuttered federal departments sits the expired Violence Against Women Act, also known as VAWA.
VAWA funding supports a variety of initiatives in Connecticut, said Liza Andrews, Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence director of public policy and communications. Those include various services for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, as well as funding for advocacy and training. Nearly 40,000 Connecticut residents seek help around domestic violence every year. Shelters for women leaving domestic violence are over capacity all. The. Time.
VAWA funding was included in the recent federal budget that Congress hasn’t passed after President Donald Trump tied its passage to paying for a wall (or a fence or a series of steel slats, depending on which tweet you read) along the country’s border with Mexico.
The new Congress can either pass a budget or reauthorize VAWA—which sounds simpler than it’s been in the last few years. While activists watched in horror, the law was nudged forward (barely) by a Republican Congress when it was due to expire in September, and again in December.
This is what happens when funding is subject to the political winds of a partisan Washington. Something as important as VAWA can take a back seat.
An example? Sen. Mitch McConnell is the senior senator from Kentucky who has emerged as a rabid Trump supporter. He was one of the original co-sponsors of the first iteration of the bill in 1991 after the contentious and disappointing Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but he voted against its reauthorization in 2013 when Democrats sought to include provisions for same-sex couples and immigrants, as well as expand programs for victims of sex trafficking. That reauthorization took 18 months, said Karen Jarmoc, president and CEO of Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (Votes for two earlier reauthorizations, in 2000 and 2005, were mostly bipartisan and smooth.)
That kind of politicization “is not helpful in any way, especially when we’re speaking about such an important challenge as violence against women in their homes, in their workplaces, and in society,” said Jarmoc.
The law’s original intent, according to the Congressional Research Service, was to address “domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking,” crimes that overwhelmingly affect women. Funding addressed, among other things, revamping the criminal justice system, community and prevention. People at state organizations such as Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence (CONNSACS) and Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, are counting on the shutdown ending soon. Funding for programs that come through the federal Department of Health and Human Services was approved in September, though funding from the Department of Justice, home of the Office of Violence Against Women, is tied to the new budget.
And this is important. With its passage in 1994, VAWA created a network of protections for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence. According to a 2016 Department of Justice report, VAWA funding “transformed” how the criminal justice respond to sexual and domestic violence. Its importance can’t be overstated.
The act was originally part of the Violence Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a piece of legislation that was six years and multiple late-night caucuses in the making. Among other things, the law pumped money into urban areas—such as Hartford—that were being choked by gang violence. But it also created harsher (the so-called “three strikes” provision) punishment for federal crimes and President Bill Clinton, who lobbied hard for the bill, eventually apologized for the bill’s negative impact on communities of color.
Trump says he’s ready to deal on the border wall. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi may be able to guide the president into something workable.
But here’s an idea. Let’s make funding for these services permanent. The protection of women should never be subject to political whims.
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.