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VAWA from the trenches: why we need to do something

Published on June 22, 2012 by Erica Laue

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Intimate partner violence is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart for a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being that I’ve been working on the ground (so to speak) in violence prevention for the entirety of my career and post-secondary education. On a daily basis, I see and work with the trauma that is inflicted on someone by the person (or sometimes people) who are supposed to love them the most. I sit with people who are crying because they were denied a protection order that they desperately needed, or because they changed their phone number again and their offender found them again anyway. I assist people in developing complex escape plans so they can leave their own homes without being stalked or injured.I provide therapy for the people whose brains have been severely altered by the patterns of fear they lived with day in and day out. It’s exhausting work, made even more draining by the knowledge that I get to come home to safety and comfort every night while my clients never ever catch a break. For them, this is life.

Photo courtesy of amnesty-volunteer.org

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA; link goes to the bill as it was passed in 1994) in America is one of the most fundamentally important pieces of legislation to the job I do, whether I’m being an advocate or being a therapist. VAWA is what funds every state’s coalition against domestic abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking, which in turn means that VAWA partially funds most of the safe houses and shelters across the country. VAWA is what allows me to tell a trafficked client who was brought here by her husband of three weeks, only to be brutally assaulted and tortured for three years, that she doesn’t have to choose between her safety and remaining in the U.S. VAWA is the reason that, during my lifetime (and I’m only 25!), the federal government finally codified marital rape as a crime in all fifty states. VAWA is the reason it’s a felony to cross state lines to violate a restraining order.

The significance of this legislation is overwhelming, and while it’s imperfect (as are all laws), it is up for renewal on a regular basis and is often revised to expand the protections available to victims of intimate partner violence and human trafficking. In this legislative cycle, the proposed revisions provide greater opportunities for Native American leaders to prosecute perpetrators; facilitate the safety of undocumented immigrants who are caught between deportation and domestic abuse; and prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

These are huge. Most safe houses in the United States will gladly accept cisgendered women and their children, but don’t provide similar safe housing for trans women, genderqueer folk, or men of any stripe. Many state coalitions, including Colorado, will cut funding to safe houses that open their doors to anyone in these categories. Some safe houses even prohibit residents from bringing teenaged sons with them because they’re “practically men.” Even more safe houses who purportedly offer room for queer (“but cis”) women permit such a hostile and queer-phobic environment for these residents that they often feel too unsafe to stay. When you consider that all of these populations experience abuse at approximately the same rate that cis women experience abuse from cis male partners (25-33%, and I kid you not), that means that our current funding structure absolutely discriminates against a significant percentage of the victimized population. We need to expand protection for these individuals so they too can benefit from the law that has made such a difference for straight cis women victims.

The problem is that, somehow, this is under debate in Congress. I still fail to understand how someone can look at information about the diversity of domestic abuse victims/survivors and continue to believe that these proposed expansions to the law are unnecessary. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening and even certain cutbacks (particularly to the special visas VAWA grants immigrant victims of domestic abuse and trafficking) are being promoted as a “good idea.” Let me explain before I start getting hateful comments about liars abusing the visa system: those visas are a pain in the butt to obtain for the most cut-and-dried cases. If you’ve never accompanied someone through the torturous process of trying to get one, then keep your silence until you have. It takes years and the kind of documentation of injuries and police reports that most victims never have, regardless of their immigration status. We need more protection, not less, for victims and survivors.

Please take a moment to take a look at the website for the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women and find a way to support this important piece of legislation. For those of you in the U.S., write to your Congresspeople. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper(s). Pass the word along to your friends. Attend the National Day of Action.

Please, whatever you do, don’t let this slip by without doing something. The safety of millions of people, literally, is counting on you.

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