Congress reconvened Monday with a host of issues likely to be loudly debated, from jobs to the environment to health care. Let's hope they raise their voices about violence, too.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), created to protect women from domestic and sexual violence, has flown through periodic reauthorizations in both houses with bi-partisan support since its creation in 1994.
Sadly, not this year -- yet.
Before recessing in August, and largely off the public's radar, the Republican-controlled House passed a watered-down version that rejects protections for undocumented immigrants, American Indians, LGBT individuals and college students. These groups experience disproportionately high rates of violence.
Among those rejecting the protections were Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Missouri Rep. Todd Akin of "legitimate rape" notoriety.
The Senate version, which includes those protections, passed in April, 68 to 31. Now the two sides are stuck, unless they can work together on a compromise. (The VAWA was last reauthorized under a Republican administration in 2005.)
The partisan divide on this one has stunned those in the trenches.
"This has never been controversial," said Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). "It's always been really broadly embraced. It's never been funded to the level everyone would like to see, but there's always been support for the federal government's role in trying to address violence against women."
VAWA provides resources to states to improve training and coordination for police, the courts and prosecutors. It also funds a wide range of victim-services programs, including transitional housing, legal assistance and -- essential if we are to ever break the cycle of violence -- prevention initiatives that engage men and youth.
How has it fared? Quite well, for everyone.
Between 1993 and 2007, the rate of intimate-partner homicides of females decreased 35 percent; the rate of intimate-partner homicides of males decreased 46 percent, said Rosie Hidalgo, director of public policy for Casa de Esperanza, a respected domestic violence program based in St. Paul.
"VAWA really is gender-neutral. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the time, domestic violence victims are women but, regardless, there still are cases where men may be victims. We need to work to end all forms of abuse against all victims."
Joe Biden drafted the original VAWA bill in 1994, and it was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005.
More than 30 Minnesota agencies and programs benefit from its grants, including MNCASA, Breaking Free, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, and the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office.
Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, is understandably offended by the implication that only certain women "deserve" protections.
One in three American Indian women will be raped in her lifetime, according to Amnesty International, the highest rate for any group. "It is an epidemic of violence," Koepplinger said, "which makes Congress' inaction all the more inexcusable."
Advocates for immigrant communities add their own concerns. VAWA protections are essential to protect women and children from sex trafficking, and from abusers who often use lack of immigration status to silence their victims.
Dunn noted that the Senate bill evolved from years of research, engaging everyone with a stake in violence prevention.
"We have all learned so much about what makes a good criminal justice response, what makes a good advocacy response, and how to engage men in prevention," Dunn said. "It's been an extraordinary opportunity to hone our skills and purpose."
Koepplinger, too, has seen heartening progress thanks to VAWA initiatives.
"In Indian country, leadership and great work are being done," Koepplinger said. "We are also seeing more men step forward and say, 'This is our problem.' But they are really dependent on sustained funding. I just hope that people who care about safety for women and children will call their legislators."
No need to call U.S. Sens. Al Franken or Amy Klobuchar, except to thank them. Both Minnesota leaders were on the forefront of moving the Senate bill through.
Franken wrote a new provision making it unlawful to evict a woman from federally supported housing just because she is a victim of violence and another ensuring that survivors of sexual assault are never forced to pay for their own rape kits.
Klobuchar has been actively meeting with House members, law enforcement officials and domestic abuse experts to see the more inclusive bill through to its ultimate passage.
"It will get done," Klobuchar said confidently, "maybe even by the election."
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