In Struggle Over Violence Against Women Act, War on Women Turns Deadly

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National Organization for Women (NOW)

In Struggle Over Violence Against Women Act, War on Women Turns Deadly

Rumor in Washington, D.C., has it that House conservatives bent on dismantling the Violence Against Women Act believe they've succeeded by setting up a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose endgame. They figure, so it's said, that they can either force passage of the House version of VAWA -- a horrendous bill that fundamentally undermines the act's key programs -- or block passage altogether of a reauthorization of this life-saving legislation, in which case they would proceed to defund its programs in next year's federal budget.

Who knows if such speculation is true? What I do know is that these conservatives are not just playing politics. They are dead set on a broad-based anti-woman agenda that includes dismantling the Violence Against Women Act -- and it's up to us to stop them.

Here is what has happened thus far in the effort to reauthorize VAWA's life-saving programs: The Senate passed a VAWA reauthorization bill that is supported by women's rights and anti-violence advocates. The Senate bill would consolidate some programs to reduce costs, but at the same time expand services for underserved populations on Native American reservations and in immigrant and LGBT communities, as well as for sexual assault victims on college campuses. Senate conservatives like Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) balked at improving services to these inconvenient victims and came up with a substitute authored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). Not only did the Hutchison alternative fail, but the Senate went on to pass VAWA reauthorization by a vote of 68-31, with 15 Republicans (including Sen. Hutchison, to her credit) joining all Senate Democrats in support.

Over on the House side, however, conservatives picked up the failed Hutchison substitute and ran with it. The House bill, H.R.4970, fundamentally transforms the Violence Against Women Act. By slashing resources, imposing new and unnecessary costs on service providers, and turning its back on Native American women, immigrant women LGBT victims and college students, H.R.4970 essentially undoes VAWA's victim-centered response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. In some cases, the House bill even exposes survivors to known risks of heightened violence at the hands of their abusers.

Among other things, H.R. 4970:

  • Partially dismantles and downgrades the Office on Violence Against Women, an essential hub that develops information and best practices for providing services to victims and holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes;
  • Imposes costly new paperwork and audit burdens on agencies, thereby diverting funds from direct services, technical assistance and financial training;
  • Erodes important provisions for immigrant victims' safety, notifying abusers of the self-petition process, practically inviting them to block victims' access to this critical remedy;
  • Rolls back existing provisions and excludes key improvements to address the specific needs of communities of color;
  • Weakens current law by merely allowing instead of requiring grant recipients to consult with community stakeholders, including victim service providers, law enforcement and prosecutors;
  • Removes the requirement that victims be notified of their housing rights before eviction;
  • Introduces a mandatory minimum sentence for sexual assault and rape that would actually reduce reporting and make it easier for defendants to plead to a non-sexual assault crime;
  • Diminishes tribal authority to issue protection orders, forcing Native American victims to rely on federal authorities, who are often hundreds of miles away.

All who care about ending the scourge of violence against women were horrified when this version of VAWA passed the House. The vote was 222 to 205. The only silver lining was that 23 courageous Republicans voted against it.

The two chambers' dueling versions of VAWA reauthorization now need to be reconciled, and House leaders are playing procedural hardball to force their version to prevail. And this is where we come back to those Capitol Hill rumors: If they can't get the bad House version of VAWA through, they'll block reauthorization altogether and then defund its programs. Win-win for them, right?

Not so fast. Women voters are paying attention.

A growing number of women are becoming deeply disgusted by what they view as an extremist agenda to roll back women's rights and well-being across the board -- not just abortion rights, but also birth control, equal pay, affordable health care and, now, protection from domestic violence and sexual assault.

House Speaker John Boehner, according to Politico, wants to change the subject and stop talking about things like VAWA reauthorization. But the speaker can't have it both ways. He cannot lead savage attacks on women's rights and then whine when women take notice, object and push back.

If Speaker Boehner wants to avoid controversy over VAWA, he should support the Senate version of VAWA reauthorization, instead of the House bill that contains a host of regressive and sometimes dangerous provisions.

Of course, what Speaker Boehner really wants to prevent is people starting to connect the dots between his efforts to undermine VAWA and the other legislative attacks aimed specifically at women. Conservative bills like H.R.1, H.R.3 and H.R.317, respectively remove federal funding for family planning clinics, prevent private insurance from covering abortion costs and authorize public hospitals to watch pregnant women die rather than perform lifesaving abortions.

And let's not forget the Ryan Budget, which rolls back Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits and defunds or cuts programs like Head Start, food stamps, after-school care, job training and college tuition assistance -- all programs that disproportionately serve and employ women -- in order to increase military spending and tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.

Is there a connection there? Well, guess who co-sponsored and/or voted for every last one of those bills? Yup -- the very same folks behind the House version of VAWA. You could call this a calculated strategic exploitation of economic and political imbalances in service of an agenda to reinstate mid-20th century gender roles and relations.

Or, you could call it a war on women.

And join me in mobilizing to kick these extremists out of office.

Terry O'Neill

Terry O'Neill is president of the National Organization for Women.

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