On March 17, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which was originally signed into legislature in 1994. The original bill established the National Domestic Violence Hotline and continues to provide funding for women’s shelters and other resources that support survivors of gender-based violence. The newest version of the bill has additional legislation prioritizing the needs of survivors of sexual violence based on input from recent social movements like #MeToo.
“The bill has three broad, but simple, goals: to make streets safer for women; to make homes safer for women; and to protect women’s civil rights,” current President Joe Biden said in 1990 when he sponsored the bill as a senator for Delaware.
Rackham student Grace Argo, an LSA doctoral candidate in Women’s Studies and History, conducts research focusing on sexual abuse within families. Argo wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that the resources the VAWA provides are essential, but not completely comprehensive.
“VAWA increases funding for shelters and rape crisis centers to support women and children escaping abuse, which is critical,” Argo wrote. “On the other hand, VAWA doesn’t guarantee survivors a positive right to housing or financial assistance, which are vital for ensuring long-term safety.”
While the most recently authorized version of VAWA does not necessarily provide housing solutions, it does ensure victims who live in federally-assisted housing will not face eviction due to violence committed against them.
The vote to reauthorize came shortly after deadly shootings in Atlanta, where eight victims — seven of them women, six of whom were of Asian descent — died. According to The New York Times, the bill has been reauthorized every few years since 1994 and was reauthorized in the House in 2019 on the VAWA’s 25th anniversary, but progress halted when the Senate never voted on it.
The bill passed 244-172 during the March 17 vote, with only 29 House Republicans joining Democrats to vote yes. When the bill was reauthorized the last time in 2013, 87 Republican members voted for it.
Some of the greatest opponents of the bill are pro-gun politicians, because the bill bans the “boyfriend loophole,” which allows abusive dating partners the right to own a gun. The bill extends the prohibition on purchasing firearms from current and former spouses convicted of domestic violence to anyone convicted of stalking, assaulting a partner or anyone who has a restraining order against them filed by a partner.
Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., said the proposed version of the VAWA “makes it clear that Democrats consider gun ownership a second-class right.”
U-M Nursing professor Michelle Munro-Kramer conducts research on different forms of gender-based violence and teaches a class called “Gender-Based Violence: From Theory to Action.” Munro-Kramer told The Daily that guns can be deadly and worsen domestic violence situations.
“Owning guns has increased the rates of violence around the country,” Munro-Kramer said. “When the violence is escalating, one of the questions we think about is ‘Does your partner have a weapon at home that could be used to harm you seriously or even commit murder?’ … I think (the boyfriend loophole) is a really important part (of the VAWA).”
Argo said there is no pre-meditation in most cases of domestic violence, noting that gun restrictions should be expanded beyond just legal spouses to protect women and children.
“If abusers viewed legally binding relationships, like marriage, as sufficient to exert control over their partners, they wouldn’t have to resort to violence in the first place,” Argo wrote. “Relationships with abusive men escalate quickly … They just explode. In the hands of an abuser, (guns) are lethal. Firearms account for half of all intimate partner homicides. When a person has a prior conviction for abuse or stalking, there is no logical reason to restrict gun ownership for some of those people but not others.”
The most recent version of the VAWA includes language specific to women of color — particularly Native American women — and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Previous versions have included immigrant women, and the 2021 reauthorization still includes them but does not expand their rights. The bill secures transgender women’s right to stay in women’s shelters and serve time in women’s prisons.
Barbara Niess-May, the executive director of SafeHouse Center — a resource for people impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault in Washtenaw County — said it is imperative that legislation targeted at women’s safety includes the needs of transgender women. SafeHouse provides counseling, legal services, shelter and support for survivors “regardless of gender identity,” Niess-May said.
“Domestic violence and sexual assault can happen in any community and it is the responsibility of federal government to be very clear and explicit that these funds need to be used where they’re needed most,” Neiss-May said. “All communities need help and support, but we need to be mindful of the communities who have been left behind and see what we can do to bring them up to speed.”
Munro-Kramer said she supports giving transgender women the choice to stay in women’s shelters and serve time in women’s prisons in order to ensure their safety.
“When transgender women are put in male prisons, they experience very high rates of violence,” Munro-Kramer said. “If they are going to feel safer in a female prison, then that is what we need to do in order to secure their safety because above all they are a person and have likely experienced trauma at some point in their lives.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, victims of domestic abuse nationwide are trapped in unsafe situations in their homes. Stay-at-home orders have made reporting and leaving an abusive home much more difficult. Victims of abuse also may be more vulnerable to financial exploitation due to widespread layoffs and unemployment.
Niess-May said that shelters struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, since many were unable to provide essential in-person services.
“The pandemic really landed hard for us,” Niess-May said. “We literally built the plane while flying it and came up with practices and procedures to do remote work, even though it’s highly confidential.”
Munro-Kramer agreed that the pandemic has created barriers for victims to seek support as well as for others to provide support for victims of domestic violence.
“Most research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased rates of gender-based violence and caused more isolation and a decrease in use of resources among survivors,” Munro-Kramer said. “Some of that is obviously related to quarantining in place with a partner and the fact that… one may not be able to leave the house.”
Munro-Kramer is conducting a study with colleagues at Michigan State University on chat-based helplines for survivors. She said they saw a huge increase in the use of these kinds of services during the pandemic, because it’s easier to type a message than to risk your partner hearing you speak on the phone.
Argo said the United States needs to expand its social welfare policies in order to truly protect people from abuse. According to Argo, the pandemic has brought attention to holes in the country’s “social safety net.”
“COVID-19 has made it difficult for women and children to find any reprieve from their abusers,” Argo wrote. “If you’re lucky, you might find space in a temporary shelter, but finding permanent housing, a new job and trying to rebuild financially is next to impossible right now. To end domestic violence in this country, we need more than just legislation like VAWA — we also need healthcare, affordable housing, a living wage.”
Niess-May echoed these sentiments, saying she has seen improvement in the public’s understanding of sexual abuse and domestic violence, in part due to legislation like the VAWA. Despite this, there is still much work to be done, Niess-May said.
“We need to end oppression overall if we’re going to end violence against women, so we all need to band together to do that,” Niess-May said. “Some people didn’t think that (sexual assault and domestic violence) should have criminal consequences early in my career. Also, now there is talk about restorative justice instead of police involvement … We recognize that survivors look toward different remedies in their lives, and we seek to honor that whatever that might look like for them.”
Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Van Horne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.