As the 112th Congress came to a close, wrapped up in the drama of the so-called fiscal cliff, it failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. It was the first time Congress has failed to do so.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was enacted by Congress in 1994. Among its many provisions were tougher penalties for repeat sexual offenders, funding to train law enforcement in appropriate responses to domestic violence cases, and establishing the National Domestic Violence Hotline where victims can call for help and guidance. It focused attention on underserved groups of women, including immigrant and Native American populations.
VAWA created a federal rape shield law, which prevents a woman’s past sexual history from being used against her in a rape trial. It provided economic relief to rape victims by mandating that they don’t have to pay for their own rape exams.
Just as importantly, the enactment of VAWA publicly acknowledged the abuse suffered by hundreds of thousands of women every year. Not only did it put in place changes in how the legal system treated abused women, it was a statement that violence against women would no longer be met with indifference and ambivalence but would be prosecuted with vigor and diligence.
It was long overdue. The outcry against violence against women had reached a level that could no longer be ignored. The numbers didn’t lie, and the Violence Against Women Act was enacted to combat them. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
- • In a nationwide survey, 8% of high school students reported having been forced to have sex. More female (11.8%) than male (4.5%) students reported experiencing forced sex in their lifetimes.
• An estimated 20% to 25% of college women in the United States have experienced an attempted or complete rape during their college career.2
• Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives.
The CDC acknowledges the challenges women still face when reporting assault.
Many cases are not reported because victims are afraid to tell the police, friends, or family about the abuse. Victims also think that their stories of abuse will not be believed and that police cannot help them. They may be ashamed or embarrassed. Victims may also keep quiet because they have been threatened with further harm if they tell anyone.
Recent stories in the news provide good reason for victims to remain afraid to report the crime. At the University of Notre Dame, a freshman committed suicide after allegedly being sexually assaulted by a school football player. She received harassing texts from a friend of the alleged attacker. According to Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post,
At the time of her death, 10 days after reporting the attack to campus police, who have jurisdiction for even the most serious crimes on school property, investigators still had not interviewed the accused. It took them five more days after she died to get around to that, though they investigated Lizzy herself quite thoroughly, even debriefing a former roommate at another school with whom she’d clashed.
The player was never charged with a crime, and never disciplined by the coach of the football team.
In Steubenville, Ohio, an unconscious 15 year old female student was repeatedly assaulted by two high school students, both star football players, who have been charged with the crime. During the assault, witnesses took pictures which were later posted online, and tweeted about the incident as it happened. Although informed of the pictures last fall, the high school football coach didn’t even bench the players.
Some of our political leaders aren’t much more enlightened. Last fall, the website ThinkProgress wrote about the viewpoint two candidates had about rape,
Last year, Akin joined with GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as two of the original co-sponsors of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill which, among other things, introduced the country to the bizarre term “forcible rape.”
Is it any wonder why women hesitate to report sexual assault? It’s bad enough that a small percentage of reported cases actually make it to trial; now the victim must risk being humiliated through social media. She has to listen to comments about false accusations and watch some of our leaders treat the crime of sexual assault as one in which she shares responsibility.
Perhaps a victim could at least take a small measure of comfort in the knowledge that despite the idiots in this world, Congress was not indifferent to her plight and had taken action to ameliorate her suffering. The measures in VAWA provided her, if after the fact, a modicum of protection and assistance.
Although the Act had been reauthorized by Congress several times since its original passage, it was allowed to expire when the House failed to vote to renew it.
Republican leaders in the House balked at new provisions in the Act that extended protections for victims in Native American and LGBT communities and undocumented workers
Women lawmakers were incensed. Senator Patty Murray, one of the supporters of the initial passage of the Act in 1994, complained bitterly about the failure. “The House Republican leadership’s failure to take up and pass the Senate’s bipartisan and inclusive VAWA bill is inexcusable.” She has said she will reintroduce the legislation in the newly sworn in 113th Congress.
When the Senate debated the bill before passing it on to the House, Senator Dianne Feinstein argued in favor of reauthorization. “To defeat this bill is almost to say ‘we don’t need to consider violence against women — it’s not an important issue.'”
And apparently, to the House Republicans, it’s not.