Advocates Speak! VAWA: It is not just about reauthorization.

It’s that time again, VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) reauthorization is up for vote.

The Violence Against Women Act (commonly known as “VAWA”) is now in Congress for a full Senate vote which will  determine whether to reauthorize federal  funds that supports local domestic violence shelters and programs nationwide.  VAWA is a landmark US federal legislation that was passed in 1994.  Developed and passed with the concerted effort by domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy organizations to address and prevent domestic and sexual violence in the United States, VAWA has allocated over $9 billion to federal, state, and local-level work to address and prevent domestic violence, sexual assault, rape and stalking.

Due to expire at the end of 2012, the legislation is up for reauthorization and is soon to be marked up in the Senate committee this week. Although, these funds are necessary for many national and local service providers, domestic violence advocates and organizations have all too often focused their legislative efforts on VAWA reauthorization without offering a critique of a continued and growing dependency on federal funds for necessary services and resources to survivors of domestic violence.

Take a look at what three advocates have to say about VAWA; what works, what doesn’t and what should be done.

img-donna-cokerDonna Coker: The VAWA reauthorization bill provides critical funding for services, expands protections for immigrant and Native American victims, and expands non-discrimination protections.  For these reasons, we should urge Congress to pass the bill. But the bill, like its predecessors, continues to focus disproportionate funds on criminal justice responses rather than on the economic and racial justice initiatives that are desperately needed in our struggle to end gendered violence.

VAWA funding is inadequate to offset federal policies that render women more vulnerable to private violence. TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) policies that place women in low-wage dead-end jobs instead of providing a bridge out of poverty, federal restrictions on funding for abortion for low-income women, and criminal law enforcement policies that results in mass incarceration are just a few of the federal policies that render women, but particularly poor women of color, immigrant women, and Native women more vulnerable to private violence.

We should urge Congress to address these structural inequalities that increase domestic violence.  We should further urge Congress to fund demonstration projects for Restorative Justice and other alternatives to punitive criminal law responses that allow women more choice.

Alisa Del Tufo: The passage of VAWA in 1994 has transformed the landscape of awareness, interventions and services for victimsalisa_del_tufo_web160 and perpetrators of domestic violence. However those of us who work in communities know that the success attributed to VAWA may be more complex than some would like us to believe. We are compelled to ask questions about the effectiveness of a system that relies so heavily on individual services and criminal justice interventions.  Especially as the number of people, in particular men of color are put behind bars.  With re-authorization pending it is a good time to ask, “what do we want VAWA to do?” As our awareness about and efforts to end intimate and family violence evolve so must the ideas, strategies and messages we use to do this vital work. To move forward with a focus on promoting prevention, building movements, collaboration and engagement with our communities we must draw attention to new directions.

Community Based Support/Accountability: A small percentage of assaults are reported to the police.  Accountability, justice and reparation are not the sole purview of the criminal justice system. We must build community based efforts to prevent intimate violence, support survivors and intervene with perpetrators. Grow Prevention Efforts With Community: Prevention must be community based, community owned and focus on reframing norms. Impact on Health: Abuse impacts the long-term health of victims, perpetrators and the entire community. Finding ways to prevent and heal are essential. Increase Immigrant Assistance: Assistance should be expanded to abused immigrant women and prevention efforts should target immigrant families with culturally focused and sensitive messages and assistance. Lesbian/Gay/Trans Assistance: Assistance to this community should not be an “add on” but core to the new VAWA legislation.  Community Well-Being: In addition to the impact on mental and physical health these forms of violence degrade community well-being, safety and engagement. We can tap and support ways to build community strength and interrupt this epidemic. We hope that the conversations occurring as part of re-authorization will help us to invigorate our efforts to address these issues in ways that are more comprehensive, focus and prevention and build community partnerships.

Soniya-MunshiSoniya Munshi: The current dialogues about the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act offer us an opportunity to step back and take a look at the impacts of VAWA, over the past 17 years, on our work to address various forms of intimate violence. One of the most significant effects of VAWA has been the recognition of certain forms of intimate violence (e.g. domestic violence, sexual assault) as a crime. For example, the monies that are made available for policing and prosecution activities has grown, in actual amounts but also in the percentages of the overall VAWA budgets, with each re-authorization.

While some segments of the anti-violence movement see this recognition from the state, through the casting of intimate violence as a crime, as a success, many of us who are invested and working in communities of color in the U.S. are concerned about the complicated consequences of criminalization on our everyday lives. Groups such as INCITE! Women of Color against Violence have shown that strategies to address violence that rely on a sexist, homophobia, racist, xenophobia and classist criminal legal system do not increase conditions of safety and well-being for survivors of color.

As VAWA has become indicative of widespread recognition of and concern about intimate violence, for me, some of the critical questions that emerge include: Is it necessary to think of something as a crime to recognize it as wrong or harmful? What happens if we think about violence and harm in our communities outside of a framework of crime and illegality? What community-based responses are we growing that are accessible to survivors who, for their own sense of holistic safety, are reluctant to engage with the state? How do we create responses to violence that center individual and collective responsibility and accountability for violence that is enacted upon survivors, but that also transcend solutions based in incarceration or other techniques of structural violence?

About the advocates

Donna Coker is the Professor of Law at the University of Miami. Professor Coker’s scholarship focuses on criminal law, gender and inequality.  She is a nationally recognized expert in domestic violence law and policy.  Her research concerns three major areas: the connection between economic vulnerability and domestic violence; restorative justice and other alternative criminal justice interventions; and gender and criminal law doctrine. Before attending law school, Professor Coker worked in the domestic violence field for 10 years.

Alisa Del Tufo is the Founder and Director of Threshold Collaborative- an organization that uses narrative, community opinion gathering to develop place based solutions that privilege the voice of marginalized people. Having worked to end violence in the family for almost 30 years, Ms. Del Tufo has been the Founder and Director of CONNECT as well as one of the nation’s leading domestic violence agency; Sanctuary for Families. Through transformative education, Alisa has pioneered programs that help batterers, victims, children, community members, service providers, clergy, and social workers examine and change the assumptions that perpetuate family violence.

Soniya Munshi is a doctoral student in Sociology and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Soniya’s dissertation research looks at state, medical institutional, and community-based responses to domestic violence in South Asian immigrant communities in New York City. Her work centralizes possibilities for transformational justice that transcend state-driven responses to community violence. Soniya’s academic work is informed by over 15 years of experience with anti-domestic violence efforts as well as her participation in immigrant rights and queer/trans justice organizing work in people of color communities.

Resources for further reading 

National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey  |  INCITE! Women of Color |   Women’s Law.org  |  Wikipedia: VAWA