While the American public debates gun laws, the violent gang rape of a young woman in India, who later died, has catalyzed conversation about sexual violence around the world. In the United States and around the world, women are campaigning, marching and working to diminish sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes that disproportionately affect women.
Women are victims of sexual violence at a rate more than four times as high as that for men. In recent years, four of every five victims of domestic partner violence was female. The statistics go on and on. Occasionally, someone points out that men, too, are victims of such violence, a fact both true and unfortunate, but no one, really, can deny that women are at significantly greater risk.
This week, a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate approved the renewal of the federal Violence Against Women Act, VAWA, a law first passed in 1994. That is heartening, although cynics might note that eight Senate Republicans have switched their votes since last year’s failed renewal attempt – and because they received a strong message from voters in response to cringe-worthy statements by GOP politicians during the 2012 election cycle.
To be fair, some of the objections to last year’s proposal have been ironed out. For example, a provision to expand immigration visas for victims of violent crime, derided as an “amnesty” plan, is gone. Federal funding has been proposed to address the backlog in untested rape kits. One major dispute remains, though, and it is one that affects Southwest Colorado: a provision that would allow Native American victims to bring charges against their attackers, including non-Native Americans, in tribal courts. Three in five Native American women will be victims of abuse in their lifetimes, and VAWA advocates say that such abuse often goes unpunished because of the disconnect between tribal and state laws and courts. Opponents say tribal-court trials would deprive non-Native Americans of their constitutional right to a trial by a jury of their peers, a complex problem when the defendant and alleged victim are members of markedly different communities.
The jurisdiction issue needs to be straightened out in a way that protects the rights of both, and that acknowledges the justifiable belief that different standards of justice hold sway on different sides of the reservation boundary. The basic issue, though, is this: Native American women, as all people, need and deserve protection from violence.
Although both houses of Congress passed bills reauthorizing VAWA, House Republicans cited procedural problems and did not move the measure toward a conference committee to iron out differences between the two versions.
So VAWA, which expired in 2011, went unrenewed in 2012. Now it is before the House once again, and, this time, legislators should pass it quickly and decisively, reconcile it and send it to the president for his signature.
VAWA has produced demonstrable results: Both intimate-partner violence and rape have been reduced by statistically significant amounts. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, attempted rapes have dropped to a third of 1990 levels. That’s progress that cannot be opposed by any reasonable American.
While Congress dithers, locals can demonstrate that they can disapprove of crimes of violence, and they can work on the problems involved in gender-specific attacks: attitudes toward women and sex, substance abuse issues, and the treatment of victims as victims and not as instigators. And we can demand that our legislators transcend gender politics and partisan divisions to accomplish the straightforward task of reauthorizing VAWA.