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Event report: SPSSI Congressional briefing on the Violence Against Women Act


On February 11, 2013, SPSSI held a Congressional briefing on the Violence Against Women Act, focusing on special protections for LGBT, ethnic minority, Native American, and immigrant women. 

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been reauthorized twice with bipartisan support, and cooperation between the Senate and House. However, VAWA’s reauthorization hit a roadblock in 2012, when Senate (S.1925) and House (H.R.4970) versions of the bill diverged on several important provisions. The delay in VAWA’s reauthorization has led to concern among groups working toward the elimination of violence against women.

The Senate was originally due to vote on VAWA’s reauthorization on February 7, 2013 (although the vote was ultimately pushed back to the 12th).  In case the House chose to vote soon afterwards, Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee asked SPSSI to brief interested House staffers before any vote could take place.  Despite the short notice, Drs. Tania Israel (University of California, Santa Barbara), Roe Bubar (Colorado State University), Tameka Gillum (University of Massachusetts Amherst), and Leslye Orloff (American University), were able to travel to DC in order to participate in the briefing.

Tania Israel pointed out that interpersonal violence (IPV) occurs at similar or higher rates among same-sex couples than mixed-sex couples.  More broadly than IPV, over half of LGB women have experienced sexual victimization, overwhelmingly perpetrated by men; the numbers are even higher for LGB women of color.  More extreme still, 50% of transgender persons report unwanted sexual activity, while 86% of transgender youth experience sexual violence because of their gender identity.  Dr. Israel highlighted the particular challenges faced by LGBT victims of violence, including social isolation, the threat of being outed, and poorly trained law enforcement leading to indifferent or inadequate responses.  Moreover, therapists have (often unconscious) biases, and three quarters of mental health trainees and practitioners report inadequate preparation during their training to meet the needs of LGB clients.  VAWA’s provision of funding for research, outreach, training, and services could help to address the distinct needs of LGBT victims of violence.

Roe Bubar cited research showing that American Indian and Alaska Native women have the highest rates of violence of any ethnic group of women in the United States.  Native women are almost three times as likely to experience rape or sexual assault as other women, and in some tribal communities, the rate of homicide of Native women is 10 times the national average.  Current data indicates that non-Native men represent the most significant risk of violence against Indigenous women: Sixty seven percent of Native women who are the victim of rape, and 63% who are the victim of physical assault, describe the offender as non-Native.  Native women survivors of violence are often expected to travel outside their communities to access federal and state investigators, prosecutors, and courts, but Native peoples in general and Native women in particular have a long history of distrust of federal and state agencies.  This makes it difficult for survivors to access culturally relevant services, particularly for poor or low income women who often face discrimination. In 2005 and 2007, U.S. Attorneys declined to prosecute 52% of violent crimes that occurred in Indian country; 67% of cases that were declined related to sexual abuse.  Dr. Bubar argued is vital that VAWA is reauthorized, providing tribes with the ability to exercise jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of domestic and dating violence.  Community at the local level must have a central role in intervention and prevention of violence against women.

Tameka Gillum stressed the unique experiences of survivors of color.  She argued that many survivors choose not to seek services due to loyalty to their community and perceptions of a racist legal system.  Many survivors who have sought help expressed dissatisfaction with unwelcoming domestic violence shelters, legal services, and social services, decrying their lack of culturally specific responses.  Culturally specific services should: be designed for and developed in collaboration with the target population; use language familiar to the target population; disseminate information which will successfully reach the target population; hire representative staff; be conducted in an environment comfortable for participants; and incorporate the target groups’ cultural values, norms, expectations, and attitudes.  Hence, VAWA’s reauthorization is vital in order to provide funding for underserved populations’ victim services, to encourage targeted prevention, outreach, and intervention, and to enhance the capacity of underserved populations to provide population-specific services.

Leslye Orloff presented on why VAWA is so important to immigrant victims of violence.  About 22% of American women suffer domestic violence, but that number rises to 30-50% for immigrant women, and 60% for immigrant women who are, or have been, married to a US citizen or permanent resident.  Among abusive spouses who could have filed legal immigration papers for victims, 72.3% never do so, and the 27.7% who do file have a mean delay of 3.97 years.  Research has shown that, due to fewer resources, immigrant victims of domestic violence stay longer in harmful relationships, leading to heightened physical and emotional harm, and their immigration status significantly reduces their willingness to report this abuse.  Increased protections through VAWA would enable protection orders and decreased levels of violence against immigrant women and their children.  As of September 2011, 68,461 VAWA self-petitions and 2,618 T-visas (protecting trafficking victims) had been approved, and as of August 2012, 35,250 U-visas (protecting crime victims) had been approved.  Dr. Orloff argued that it is vital that VAWA is reauthorized to ensure these protections, as well as extend them in several important ways, such as strengthening the compliance enforcement system, requiring annual reports to Congress on case-processing times, and removing the possibility that children of U-Visa applicants age out of the process.

The four speakers made powerful cases for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in a version that extends protections for these marginalized groups.  LGBT, ethnic minority, Native American, and immigrant women all live unique experiences of violence, and a one-size-fits-all approach simply cannot meet their needs.  On February 12, the Senate overwhelmingly reauthorized VAWA by a vote of 78-22, including provisions protecting each of these groups.  More than 50 Congressional staffers in attendance at the SPSSI briefing were left in no doubt of the importance of the House following the Senate’s lead.

Click here to see speakers’ presentations and video of the event.

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