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Panelists discuss reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act

The panel focused on needed improvements to VAWA, despite legislation passed last month

The Violence Against Women Act, reauthorized earlier this year after contentious national debate, spurred conversation in a panel discussion in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center Tuesday afternoon.

President Obama’s signature on the legislation last month extended resources and added new provisions, but the theme of the discussion was “VAWA: There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said panelist Rachel DiBella, graduate clinical intern in domestic violence and sexual assault prevention at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts and graduate director of Boston College’s Sexual Assault Network.

VAWA, originally passed in 1994, provides resources to support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Its reauthorization includes new provisions specific to victims from LGBT, native tribal and undocumented immigrant communities, among other changes.

Vanessa Volz, attorney and executive director of Sojourner House, a Rhode Island center for domestic violence victims, opened the panel discussion with an overview of the effects of VAWA. In addition to creating the Office on Violence Against Women, through which many organizations receive funding, VAWA made police, community organizers and other resources “able to provide a coordinated response” to instances of abuse. As a result of VAWA, more victims report their abusers, and survivors are better informed about places they can turn to, Volz said. Domestic homicide rates have declined, and all states have made spousal rape a crime, she added.

While VAWA’s reauthorization passed without controversy in 2000 and 2005, its most recent extension met resistance from Republicans in the House of Representatives. Members of the opposition argued that it gave overly broad powers to the federal government and that it posed a threat to family values, a sentiment Volz said was “intertwined” with backlash against Planned Parenthood and other services offered to women.

Erin Miller, coordinator for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, said there are “lots and lots of things that we deserve … that we didn’t even dare ask for” during heated debate over women’s issues.

The discussion surrounding VAWA became about “who gets to be a citizen and whose safety matters,” which Miller called “a conversation that was way off in left field … not the conversation we should have been having.”

“This, for me personally, was an eye-opener,” said Michelle Nuey, manager of special services in the Department of Public Safety, who participated in the panel. Nuey formerly worked for a VAWA agency in the Mashpee Wompanoag tribe, of which she is a member. A new provision in the reauthorized VAWA gives native tribes authority to prosecute non-Indian offenders who assault Indian women, closing some of the gaps in jurisdiction between tribal and federal courts, Nuey said.

Some congressmen’s resistance to the expansion of tribal court authority demonstrated a desire to provide more rights to the alleged offender and a “deliberate indifference” to injustices against native people, Nuey said. Native women are abused at rates far greater than the national average, Nuey said, citing a study from the Justice Department that found that over 86 percent of assaults were by non-Indian offenders.

The newest version of VAWA adds an LGBT-focused area to the grant program, authorizes states to fund their own LGBT-focused programs and explicitly prohibits VAWA services from discriminating on the basis of sexuality. DiBella said she is approaching these changes with “some excitement” and “a little bit of caution.”

Research suggests rates of domestic violence are much higher in “gender-transcending communities,” but offenders are reported much less frequently. DiBella cited a survey in which 64 percent of transgender individuals reported experiencing sexual assault, 28 percent said they had deliberately put off seeking care for an injury out of fear of discrimination and over half said they made efforts to avoid interactions with police and law enforcement.

Miller described VAWA’s reauthorization as a victory but said the legislation is not an ideal solution to sexual assault and domestic violence. Criminal legal responses account for 70 percent of VAWA’s spending, Miller said, but often “survivors don’t want that response.”

“There’s a better VAWA out there,” Miller said, though she said she does not know what it would look like.

In contrast to the recent controversy, VAWA originally passed in 1994 with bipartisan support. Grassroots organizations to support survivors of abuse in the 1960s and ’70s spurred a movement to create laws against domestic violence, Volz said. This was a shift from traditional attitudes, which viewed domestic violence as a private matter that did not concern the government or society as a whole and did not account for the “very large economic impacts that are caused due to violence against women,” Volz said. Domestic violence costs $5.8 billion in damages such as mental health treatment and relocation of survivors and 8 million days of missed work, she said.

Gwen Bouie-Haynes, project director for domestic violence services and the rape crisis center program of Catholic Charities, said she was in Providence visiting her son and daughter who are exchange students from Tougaloo College and saw publicity for the event. “It’s too important of an issue to miss a discussion that will yield benefits for the future,” she said.

“I like the community here,” Bouie-Haynes said, adding that the resources discussed in the panel showed a more coordinated response to issues than she has faced in her over 25 years of experience in the area. She said the discussion gave her ideas that she will take back with her to Mississippi.

Adele Levine ’14 attended the panel and said she appreciated the “institution-led discussion” on issues omitted from popular media coverage of VAWA. “I’m glad someone was talking about it,” Levine said.

“The Violence Against Women Act: Politics and Realities” was sponsored by the Taubman Center for Public Policy, the LGBTQ Center and the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center. Gretchen Schultz, associate professor of French studies, introduced the event and spoke about Masha Dexter ’06, for whom the annual memorial lecture is named. Dexter died in 2004 from Hodgkin’s disease, and Dexter’s mother, Natasha, was among the approximately 50 audience members in Petterutti Lounge Tuesday afternoon.



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