Weakening Protections for Victims of Gender-Based Violence in the United States?

by | Feb 24, 2013

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Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

By Chelsea Purvis –

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is the principle federal law addressing gender-based violence in the United States.  But for the first time since its enactment in 1994, VAWA’s reauthorization faces substantial opposition.

In 1994 VAWA created a national framework for preventing and responding to gender-based violence (GBV), filling gaps in state laws and funding critical services for victims of violence.  The original act strengthened criminal penalties for sex offenders.  It provided funding to states, local governments and tribal governments to develop law enforcement responses to GBV.  The act improved inter-state enforcement of protection orders.  It authorized funding for victim support and established a national domestic violence hotline.  VAWA also filled a major gap in existing immigration law: It allowed immigrant spouses and children of abusive citizens (or legal permanent residents) to apply for a change in immigration status without the support of their abusers.

Congress enacted VAWA with bipartisan support in 1994 and reauthorized VAWA without incident in 2000 and 2005.  The reauthorization bills made improvements to VAWA, broadening assistance for abused immigrants and victims of human trafficking.

Under VAWA, the US has seen intimate partner violence fall dramatically.  But GBV is still pervasive.  One major gap in federal law on GBV is the lack of protections for Native American victims of GBV.  The vast majority of violence against Native women is perpetrated by non-Natives.  But tribal courts lack jurisdiction over non-Natives, and US attorneys do not sufficiently prosecute crimes of GBV referred to them by Native authorities.

VAWA came up for reauthorization in 2012.  The Senate’s reauthorization bill provided needed reforms to VAWA.  The bill extended tribal jurisdiction over non-Natives in cases of domestic violence.  It also improved protection for people in custodial settings, provided grants for reviewing backlogs of rape kits, expanded eligibility for immigrants applying for relief, and extended protections for LGBT victims of abuse.

But House conservatives strongly opposed the reforms to tribal jurisdiction and to expanded protections for immigrants and LGBT people.  The House produced its own reauthorization bill, stripped of these reforms.  Because the House and the Senate could not agree on a bill, VAWA expired at the end of 2012.

The Senate drafted a new bill in 2013 which included most of the 2012 reforms.  The bill passed in the Senate with bipartisan support in February.  But conservatives in the House continued to object to the Senate’s version.  UN experts spoke out against the House’s delay, urging Congress to reauthorize and reform VAWA.

On Friday the House released an updated version of its own VAWA reauthorization bill.  While a modest improvement over the 2012 bill, it continues to lack crucial reforms.  The bill does not reference LGBT people, and it curtails protections for abused immigrants.  The bill requires that tribal courts be “certified” to try non-Natives for domestic violence, and it permits defendants to remove their cases to federal courts.  The House is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday.

Chelsea Purvis is a Yale Law School legal fellow at Minority Rights Group International in London (the opinions expressed in this post are her own).  She received her M.Phil. from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 2008.


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1 Comment

  1. Andrew

    Not being Americans we should not buy into the absurd p.c. expression “Native American”. Any American born in America is a native American, and the capital N makes no difference.

    And the idea of separate courts for people of one particular ethnic origin ought to be deeply suspect. Apartheid, anyone?

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