Stand Against Racism: VAWA in Context

This Friday, the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism annual event will bring together hundreds of thousands of people across the nation, from all walks of life, to call attention to the legacy of discrimination and raise awareness that racism still exists. In the four days leading up to the Stand Against Racism, Firesteel is examining how discrimination and institutional racism can block violence survivors from accessing housing services and resources.

This series is co-authored by YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish’s GirlsFirst and Volunteer Services Coordinator Nanyonjo Mukungu, and YWCA Walla Walla’s Communications Coordinator Sara Rasmussen, who have been friends since college. This week, Nanyonjo and Sara join together with Firesteel to consider how discrimination affects different members of their communities in Seattle and Walla Walla. We invite you to do the same, and to join the YWCA in taking a Stand Against Racism this Friday, April 26.

Written by Sara Rasmussen, Communications Coordinator, YWCA Walla Walla

The first time I stepped into the YWCA of Walla Walla, it was to begin my position as Communications Coordinator. For many of my friends and peers, this has not been the case. They were there to receive support and services after surviving sexual assault.

YWCAs across the nation rely on funding from the Violence Against Women Act so that they can provide critically important programs and services to over half a million women annually, including survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. For many women, domestic violence is an immediate cause of homelessness, and can have lingering effects in the form of housing denials or evictions. VAWA has helped to address housing issues that victims of domestic violence and sexual assault face. I know just how life-changing these services can be because I’ve seen it with my friends and I’ve seen it at the YWCA where I work. 

On February 28, 2013, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Since its debut in 1994 and reauthorizations in the 2000s, the act has helped to fundamentally reshape the criminal justice response, services available for, and attitudes towards violence against women in the United States.

This year, additions to the Violence Against Women Act include funding for anti-rape and sexual assault education programs, particularly on college campuses, as well as funding for a national reporting system to decrease the national backlog of untested rape kits.

But by far, the most talked-about improvements suggested for VAWA included “dedicated programs for communities of color, immigrant, tribal, and LGBT victims,” which created a politicized debate previously unseen in its reauthorization process. Centering on these expanded services to groups not previously provided for in the legislation, the debate brought VAWA’s renewal to a standstill, bringing national attention to how and why services are provided to meet (or failing to meet) the needs of all women.

Two Walla Walla citizens demonstrate for the passage of a fully inclusive Violence Against Women Act during a rally held in February 2013. Photo Credit: Madelyn Peterson.

The expansion and renewal of VAWA was essential—and it’s great that we can move forward with it. Every day at the YWCA, I see our advocates translating VAWA funding into support and healing for the women they work with. VAWA should extend to any and every woman facing violence.

But even with the current services provided, there are many needs that the Violence Against Women Act has yet to meet. The 2013 reauthorization will continue to bring the United States closer to decreasing the incidence of and improving the services for domestic violence and sexual assault. But this conversation is not over.

One immediate concern will be with funding. Across-the-board sequester cuts are reducing funding for the programs that VAWA has only just reauthorized. “While the VAWA bill authorizes another $660 million in annual funding, the funding doesn’t actually come along with the bill… If the full 10 months of sequestration are allowed to take effect, an estimated 200,000 domestic violence victims would lose access to services,” according to Suzy Khimm of The Washington Post.

VAWA also explicitly excludes Alaskan Native women. While providing “the power to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators” of violence and assault to tribal governments, the new act in fact excludes all but one Alaskan tribe. In addition, many Alaskan Native communities do not have law enforcement, and must depend upon state law enforcement. This creates an enormous barrier to protection when state law enforcement is far from these remote and rural communities.

But law enforcement won’t fix all our problems, either. Another issue is our short-sighted overemphasis on law enforcement and criminal justice. In the past 20 years, the act’s emphasis on law enforcement and criminal justice has shifted the government’s approach to domestic violence and sexual assault from “a personal matter” to a “problem of the law.” But some research suggests that policies such as mandatory arrest laws may actually worsen domestic violence, and lead some women not report it, out of fear of homelessness, economic hardship, or the possibility of losing custody of their children. I have heard too many stories of friends fearing what will come from reporting their assaults to the police. Moreover, funds authorized through VAWA, limited as they are, provide five times as much for law enforcement action as for transitional housing, despite victims’ pressing and immediate need for housing after domestic violence.

What’s clear is that a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice and victim services is simply insufficient. The Violence Against Women act fails to address historical oppression, institutionalized barriers to services, or intersectionality. And in its emphasis on criminal justice, the act further victimizes the victims it serves. As Nanyonjo will discuss in our next post, VAWA’s effort to end violence within communities fails to connect to other strategies to end violence directed against communities.

As an institutional response to stopping violence against women, VAWA is a first step, especially with the addition of its three new provisions, but it is only one component of a much larger and more complex conversation about domestic abuse and sexual assault, and their causes, consequences, and solutions. The protracted fight to add new provisions highlights the need to take a closer look at how our responses to domestic violence and sexual assault are lacking, and how they can be improved to better address the needs of specific communities in the United States today.

This is where our series begins. This series will bring us three blog posts about violence against women. In the next post, Nanyonjo shares her own story, addressing how, by channeling its efforts into the criminal justice system, VAWA fails to take the experiences of women of color into account. Ending violence against women goes hand-in-hand with ending racism, and this week in particular, we invite everyone to join YWCAs across the country as we remember the value and importance of diversity during Stand Against Racism.

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