Drowned in all the media frenzy over the threat of a deep recession if a “fiscal cliff” compromise is not be reached on the last day of Congress on January 1, 2013 was the fate of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This landmark law had been routinely extended every five years by the US Congress with bipartisan support since it was first enacted in 1994 to address domestic and sexual abuse and to expand services and programs for victims of sexual crimes.
As Sen. Patty Murray explained to CNN, VAWA has “provided life-saving assistance to millions of women and families across the nation. For battered women, the law has provided critical law enforcement protections and often a way out from a life of abuse. One reason the law has worked so well in protecting a broad group of women is that since its initial passage, every time the US Congress has reauthorized the bill, we have done so in a bipartisan way that extends the legislation’s many protections to new groups of women.”
A RAPE EVERY 2 MINUTES IN THE US
US lawmakers had been presented with stark statistics showing that a sexual assault occurs every two minutes in the US, a figure which may be an underestimation as authorities believe that more than 50% of rapes in the US go unreported. VAWA has provided funds to train about 500,000 law enforcement officials, judges, and prosecutors each year to help ensure that rape crimes are properly prosecuted. Since VAWA’s passage, more rape survivors have been willing to come forward and report the crimes against them. The rate of intimate partner sex crimes has dropped by more than 60% since VAWA’s enactment.
In the House debate on VAWA, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) described her own personal ordeal as a sexual assault victim to explain why VAWA needed to be reauthorized. The man who raped her, she said, took her underwear to display as a prize to his friends, who had all bet him that she couldn’t be “had.” “This is what American women are facing,” Moore explained.
RAPES IN STEUBENVILLE AND NEW DELHI
Rep. Moore’s point was further emphasized by a New York Times story on December 17 (“High School Football Rape Case Unfolds on Web”) about the rape of a 16-year old high school girl by two star football players in Steubenville, Ohio. The case drew widespread attention because the rapists committed their sexual assaults on the intoxicated minor brazenly in front of partygoers who recorded the rape on their cell phone cameras and posted them on the Internet. Despite the clear evidence of their depraved crimes, their football coach and a local judge vouched for their sterling character.
On December 18, the Economist reported the December 16 gang rape of a 23-year old medical student in New Delhi:“The police said the men were looking for some fun. They had been drinking, having a party, and decided to go on a joy ride. They began circling the capital in a private bus, the police said, when they spotted a couple looking for a ride home. They waved the man and woman onboard and charged them each 36 cents. And then, the police said, the men beat the couple with an iron rod and repeatedly raped the woman as the bus circled the city.”
OUTRAGE OVER RAPE
The woman suffered severe injuries to her head and sexual organs and had to be flown to Singapore for treatment of her injuries where she eventually died – but not before news of her brutal rape drew outrage all over India and from Indians all over the world who demanded changes in the government’s treatment of rape. According to government records, of the more than 600 rape cases reported in New Delhi in 2012 – a fraction of the number of actual rapes – only one led to a conviction.
“Change is possible, but the police must document reports of rape and sexual assault, and investigations and court cases have to be fast-tracked and not left to linger for years,” wrote Sonia Faleiro in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on January1, 2013 (“The Unspeakable Truth About Rape in India”) “If victims believe they will receive justice, they will be more willing to speak up. If potential rapists fear the consequences of their actions, they will not pluck women off the streets with impunity.”
In an op-ed piece which appeared in The Hindu English language publication, Urvashi Butalia explained: “Rape happens everywhere. It happens inside homes, in families, in neighborhoods, in police stations, in towns and cities, in villages, and its incidence increases, as is happening in India, as society goes through change, as women’s roles begin to change, as economies slow down and the slice of the pie becomes smaller.”
ANTI-RAPE LAW OF 1997
Speaking of a society going through change, until the Anti-Rape Law of 1997 was enacted, rape in the Philippines was considered a “crime against chastity”, an anachronistic relic of the old feudal system, which meant that rape could only be committed against “chaste” women who could have their “value” denigrated and their “honor” stained. Women considered promiscuous could not legally be raped.
Before 1997, rape was viewed as a private crime and only the injured party could file a criminal complaint against the rapist. The 1997 law reclassified rape as a crime against persons, making it a public crime, like burglary. It broadened the definition of rape and made even marital rape punishable.
Despite the passage of the anti-rape law, Filipino women and children have continued to be victims of rape. Records from the Philippine National Police and the Women’s Crisis and Child Protection Center show that from January 2000 to August 2011, some 14,201 cases of rape were recorded including 28 cases of gang rape from January to June 2011 alone. As in the US and India, these figures do not include rape victims who refuse to report the crimes committed against them.
MEN’S RIGHTS CAUCUS
While VAWA was viewed by women around the world as a model of how to legislatively safeguard their rights, House Republicans – especially members of a group informally known as the “Men’s Rights Caucus” (which should truthfully be called the “White Men’s Rights Caucus”) – succeeded in blocking reauthorization of the law because of their opposition to provisions expanding the rights of immigrant women, gays and Native Americans.
According to Erica Eichelberger writing in The Nation (January 3, 2013, “Blocking VAWA, The GOP Keeps Up the War on Women”), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) “dug in his heels over the Native American provision which would have expanded tribal courts’ jurisdiction over domestic violence offenses committed on reservations against Native women by non-Native men.” The defeat of VAWA means that white men cannot be prosecuted in tribal courts for rapes committed against Native American women on tribal lands.
House Republican Speaker John Boehner refused to allow the VAWA bill to be brought to a straight up or down vote in the House fearing that there were enough bipartisan votes to secure the reauthorization of VAWA.
SELF-PETITION BY ABUSED SPOUSE
As an immigration lawyer, I am especially dismayed by the demise of VAWA because of the protections it provided to immigrant victims of domestic violence as it allowed the abused spouse to “self-petition” and obtain immigration relief independent of their US citizen husbands.
Since VAWA’s passage in 1994, I have represented Filipino women who were petitioned by their US citizen spouses and brought to the US only to be subjected to sexual abuse and unable to escape because of fear of deportation. Because of VAWA, the battered Pinays were able to obtain their green cards even without the petition of their spouses.
VAWA will be reintroduced this year in a Congress that now has more women than ever before. It should receive the vote of even those male members of Congress who believe that every human being has a fundamental right to be free from violence, rape, and sexual assault and that society’s most vulnerable and marginalized members deserve to be protected.
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