Violence Against Women Act:
A landmark bill in trouble

by Leigh Goodmark, author of A Troubled Marriage: Domestic Violence and the Legal System

Republican recalcitrance around the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has been in the news for the last few days.  Unwilling to endorse provisions that would guarantee services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people subjected to abuse and that would extend additional protections to undocumented women, Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee have refused to endorse the bill, which was passed by the Committee in a party line vote. Despite strong historical bipartisan support for the measure, which has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to police, prosecutors, courts, and, to a lesser extent, civil legal assistance for women subjected to abuse, VAWA is facing an uphill battle in the Senate.

In its earliest incarnations, VAWA represented a classic case of strange bedfellows making good policy.  Tough on crime conservatives joined the feminists of the battered women’s movement to support the development of a comprehensive criminal justice response to violence against women.  VAWA capped off twenty-five years of advocacy designed to persuade law and policymakers to treat domestic violence as a crime and make private violence a public concern.

Since its passage in 1994, VAWA has done a great deal of good for women subjected to abuse: creating public housing protections for women subjected to abuse, funding shelters and other services, supporting efforts to combat violence against Native American women, who suffer disproportionately from abuse, and expanding access to justice by subsidizing civil legal services.  Reauthorizing VAWA is essential to ensure that these crucial services and supports remain available.

But a growing chorus of voices is asking whether the VAWA money allocated to the criminal justice system has been money well spent.  There is scant social science evidence that the influx of money into the criminal justice system has resulted in decreased rates of domestic violence; in fact, the greatest beneficiaries of VAWA funding may be abusive men, who are less likely to be killed by partners who now have other options for addressing the abuse.  Although rates of violence against women have declined since VAWA’s passage, they have kept pace with the general decline in crime rates in the United States.  There is no real proof that pouring money into the criminal justice system makes women safer.  And yet, again this year, if it passes the Senate, VAWA will do just that.  $292 million is targeted for the criminal justice system, as opposed to $40 million for housing for women subjected to abuse and their children.

What else could VAWA do?  VAWA could address some of the structural problems that contribute to violence against women.  Unemployment and abuse are closely correlated; VAWA could provide monies for job training and employment services for men who abuse.  Poverty also makes women more vulnerable to abuse; VAWA could fund services that help women find economic stability. VAWA could target the growing problem of reproductive abuse by ensuring that women have access to reproductive health care. VAWA could provide alternatives to the criminal justice system for women who choose not to use that system (the vast majority of women subjected to abuse), funding pilot projects that explore prevention, alternate forums for seeking justice, and community problem solving, options that might help empower women subjected to abuse in ways that the criminal justice system simply can’t.

VAWA has been and continues to be crucially important in the struggle to end violence against women.  But 18 years of funding the criminal justice system to the exclusion of other remedies is enough; the time has come to use that funding to explore other promising avenues for eliminating domestic violence.

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