For that reason, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has always occupied a special place in my feminist consciousness. Originally passed in 1994 and co-sponsored by then-Senator Joseph Biden, the Act aimed to address violent crime against women—like partner abuse and sexual assault—by reforming certain outdated or stigmatizing laws, and providing funding for enforcement of those reformed laws. The Act also established the Office on Violence Against Women to administer funding for programs aimed at reducing partner violence, sexual assault and stalking. The law expired in 2011, and advocates have been trying to get a vote on reauthorization ever since.
Though this is certainly polemic, I think most good people were relieved to hear that on Thurs., Feb. 28, the House finally voted to reauthorize VAWA. That’s not to say it’s a perfect bill, or even a sufficient solution to intimate partner abuse in the U.S., but its an important and galvanizing start. The version of the bill that passed has expanded protections for LGBT people and expands the ability of tribal jurisdictions to prosecute crimes such as sexual assault and spousal abuse that occur on their grounds, regardless of the race of the defendants—much needed provisions which will help to combat sexual assault. It continues funding for programs that have altered community response to domestic violence in real ways nationwide.
That doesn’t mean our job is done, and I’m not an unqualified fan of VAWA. As a person who is deeply troubled by the prison-industrial complex, I’ve learned to be wary of legislative solutions when their mechanisms involve incarceration that impact disadvantaged people to a grossly disproportionate degree. Some of the bill’s provisions, such as mandatory sentencing minimums, go a long way in further impoverishing a family facing problems with violence, and don’t do anything to break the cycle of abuse.
In turn, the Act further strengthens a system that is one key cause of partner abuse and many other forms of violence against women. Though domestic violence happens in families of all socioeconomic statuses and demographic make-ups, solutions that rely on increased prosecutions, at the expense of community solutions, tend to further penalize already struggling families. This is due to the fact that low-income communities and communities of color face significantly more police surveillance, and thus, in these communities, instances of violence are more likely to end with criminalization rather than community support. All the while, structures that allow the abuse of some victims—men, LGBT people, immigrants, or upper-middle class women, for example—are kept in place and go unnoticed.
However, despite the imperfect nature of this version of VAWA, and the entire premise of the bill in some ways, it’s still important to recognize that individual instances of domestic violence must be continually ameliorated by social action. The Act further provides important support for programs like shelters, community violence prevention programs, counseling, and transition funding for people trying to leave abusive relationships. While researching for this article, I was looking into the resources available in my home state of New Mexico, and realized just how much the programs and places my family depended on for support during tough times were shaped by VAWA.
So now that we’ve passed the bill again, what’s next? Well, first, we need to find some way to ensure that vital social programs, like the ones implemented in the VAWA, receive funding even despite the slashing of federal programs bound to result from the sequester. We’ve got to find methods that don’t require federal funding or even the involvement of the state at all. And finally, we need to make sure our consciousness of partner abuse remains firmly rooted in our own world, understanding that there are people around us who are survivors and may even be in abusive situations now. To me, that’s the most important part of realizing that the personal and the political are inseparable: your politics can and should be able to change your own world for the better.