The VAWA Vacuum

Make no mistake:  The war on women isn’t over just because women had electoral victories in 2012. As the fiscal cliff compromise dominated the headlines, Republicans quietly killed a previously non-controversial piece of legislation called the Violence Against Women Act. The bill, which has been reauthorized repeatedly in the past, died in the House after Eric Cantor stalled on it until it expired. The thin and laughable excuse is a quibble over who has jurisdiction over rapes committed on tribal lands, but it’s safe to assume the Republican habit of rejecting any pro-woman legislation, no matter how uncontroversial outside of the far-right fringe, in the Obama era will continue.

As long as Republicans control the House, VAWA—despite its tremendous success at reducing the incidence of domestic violence in this country—will likely be dead. That means state and local governments will have to step up their game when it comes to law enforcement and providing resources. Unfortunately, the problem is one of funding. VAWA, above all other things, provided money: Money for hotlines, money for law enforcement training, money to improve the scope of law enforcement. State and local governments will struggle to make up that shortfall, but there are moves they can take that will replicate some of the benefits of VAWA without breaking the bank. 

Better public health campaigns addressing rape.

A lot of governments already spend money on anti-rape public health campaigns, but in many to most cases, the campaigns are worthless—or worse, counterproductive. All too often community outreach on rape focuses on shaming victims, as with this Pennsylvania ad that blamed rapes on victims who drink alcohol or the now-infamous officer in Toronto who blamed women’s dress. These kinds of messages are sometimes well-intended, but they have the effect of discouraging victims from reporting rapes for fear of being judged, leaving rapists free to strike again. They also feed into a low conviction rate for rape—as juries are quick to focus on the victim’s behavior instead of her rapist’s.

Institute LGBT community-inclusive policies.

LGBT folks suffer domestic violence at roughly the same rates as heterosexual women, but are often overlooked when they come in contact with medical or legal authorities. Existing services can easily be tweaked to address the needs of the LGBT community. Law enforcement can be trained to look for signs of domestic violence in same-sex altercations, and particularly be coached to distinguish between abuse and self-defense. Services that exist to help women escape abusive relationships need to be expanded so that gay male victims have more access to help. Hospitals can expand existing domestic violence screening policies to include LGBT patients.

Better gun control.

Guns don’t cause domestic violence, but they make it exponentially worse. A woman is five times more likely to die of domestic homicide if a gun is in her home. Abusers always threaten their victims with violence, but abusers who own guns can terrorize their victims more effectively. Federal law bans those with domestic violence convictions from owning guns, but the law has major loopholes. Passing stricter state gun control for handguns can plug the hole up some. Currently, state laws that prevent abusers from owning guns leave much to be desired. A few simple legal reforms can make taking away guns from convicted abusers that much easier for law enforcement to do.  

Shift focus from restraining orders to more substantive victim empowerment initiatives.

Local governments tend to rely heavily on restraining orders to protect victims of domestic violence who are trying to escape their abusers. Restraining orders are appealing, because they often give the victim a shot of confidence. Unfortunately, as a deterrent for the abuser, they leave much to be desired. While there’s wildly divergent research on the topic, some research shows that they don’t “take” for months after they’re issued. A man who risks being thrown in jail for beating his partner is often, unsurprisingly, not deterred by further threats of going to jail if he beats his partner.

There are many actions beyond restraining orders that can help a victim feel in control of her life. For instance, many victims are financially controlled by their abusers and need help taking on their own financial responsibilities. Economic empowerment projects that teach job skills, help women through the job application process, and teach them how to manage finances can help. Legal aid that helps victims through the harrowing processes of pressing charges, suing for divorce and custody, and obtaining child support can often do more to help women achieve separation than a restraining order.

Dedicated law enforcement for domestic and sexual violence.

One of VAWA's major initiatives was helping law enforcement develop special offices to handle these crimes, with the understanding that they require special skills and experience to prosecute effectively. As helpful as federal assistance is, however, no one is stopping local police forces from starting their own sex and domestic crimes units for themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean making new hires so much as rearranging departments to streamline investigation and prosecution.

Passing rape shield laws and other laws that limit the suffering of women who press rape charges.

Women often don’t press charges for rape for fear of having their names and reputations dragged through the mud by defense attorneys exploiting rape myths in order to get their clients off the hook. While most states have laws that keep defense attorneys from using a victim’s prior sexual history to discredit her testimony, but many states could stand to have these laws strengthened. For instance, some rape shield laws have exceptions for defendants who claim they thought a victim’s sexual history with other men constituted consent. Some states grant judges wide discretion in creating exceptions to rape shield laws. These loopholes can be closed quite easily.

Make no mistake; the end of VAWA is a national tragedy that will almost surely lead to resurgence of rape and domestic violence. Still, state and local governments do have power to soften the blow, by taking a hard look at their own approaches and making easy but effective improvements to the pre-VAWA status quo. 

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