Sep 24 2012

Violence Against Women Act stalled by Congressional Bickering

Native American women are being sexually and violently assaulted at shockingly high rates in the United States. According to Justice Department statistics, not only are Native American women ten times more likely to be murdered than other women, one in three report being a victim of rape or attempted rape. An disturbing 86 percent of the cases of sexual violence against Native women are committed by non-Native men. Unfortunately, most of the men are never charged due to a 1978 Supreme Court Decision which ruled that native tribal people can not prosecute those who are non-native. In fact, in 2011, the US Justice Department only prosecuted 35% of the rape cases which happened on Native reservations.

In an effort to help reverse this drastic situation Native American women are looking to the Senate approved version of the Violence Against Women Act. The act, which was originally passed 18 years ago this month, set aside money to help prosecute those who committed violence against women, but due to political bickering about the terms of the law, it expired in September 2011. In an effort to reauthorize the legislation, the Senate, with a majority of Democrats, drafted a version of the act which not only added provisions to help Native Americans prosecute cases of domestic abuse and sexual assault, but also provisions to help undocumented immigrants, college women who are sexually assaulted on campus and members of the LGBT community.

Meanwhile, The House of Representatives, with a Republican majority, drafted and passed its own version of the bill which not only omitted all the Senate provisions, it also limited and rolled back previous provisions like the number of U Visas granted to women who are abused. Groups around the country are eagerly awaiting a decision.

GUEST: Sarah Deer, Associate Professor of Law at William Mitchell College of Law. She is also a Citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma.

Rough Transcript

Kolhatkar: As far as I understand, the original Violence Against Women Act, which did expire last year, did not actually protect Native women on reservations from violence?

Deer: Yes and no. The problem really preexists VAWA. The issue of jurisdiction, has not been addressed in prior VAWA issues, only in the context of civil protection orders. So while VAWA provided a great deal of funding for tribal communities and advocates who are trained to stop violence against women, it hasn’t provided the jurisdictional fixes that are ultimately needed.

Kolhatkar: And so the Senate, it looks like, has taken steps to improving the law and we’re not just talking about Senate Democrats, but there’s also, I understand, Senate Republicans.

Deer: Yes. It’s interesting because VAWA has never been partisan since it was originally passed in 1994. Because some of the provisions that Congress or the Senate has been proposing involve maybe difficult social questions or political social questions like immigration and LGBT issues. It’s turned into a political battle for the first time. In the Senate we did have a positive vote for these progressive changes. But The House has resisted them largely because of these social political issues that are included in the new Senate version of VAWA.

Kolhatkar: So I understand that the House’s version of the Violence Against Women Act is a different version, sort of a competing version of the bill, but then there’s also House Democrats that are trying to pass their own version and Senate Republicans that are trying to pass their own version.

Deer: Right. There’s a number of different bills that have been floated; right now we have two that have been passed – one by the Senate, Senate Bill-1925 and then the House version. There are other versions floating, but right now we have votes on both of those versions, one which includes the provisions to protect Native and one that does not.

Kolhatkar: Let’s talk about the violence that Native American women do face. These numbers are shocking and their unimaginable. 86% of the cases of sexual violence are committed by non-Native men and one in three women who are report being victims of rape or attempted rape are probably even an underestimate.

Deer:Well I think it is definitely an underestimate. These are federal government statistics, these don’t come from the fields, from the people doing the work day to day. In my work, I have a chance to talk to a lot of advocates, who do direct services with Native women that have been assaulted. I haven’t yet talked to one women who thought the statistics were accurate. In fact most would say they are understating the true extent of the problem which is that in some tribal communities the elderly women, when they’re asked can’t think of a woman in their lifetime either ancestors or descendants who have not been affected by sexual violence.

Kolhatkar: And do you attribute these high rates of sexual violence to the legal inability to prosecute the non-Native perpetrators?

Deer:I think it has a huge part in explaining the high rates of statistics. It’s not the only factor, but when you think about a predator’s behavior and when predators are not held accountable for their behavior, they just continue that behavior. So when there are not enough prosecutions in tribal communities to stop perpetrators, they just continue. The legal system or the legal maze is part of the reason why these cases are not being prosecuted.

Kolhatkar: Just a few days ago in the New York Times, there was an article about an epidemic of child abuse, child sex abuse on one Indian reservation, Spirit Lake Indian reservation in North Dakota. How severe is child sex abuse alongside women’s sexual abuse in many of these reservations and are there statistics that point to a majority of the perpetrators being outside the reservations?

Deer: Great question. Because it’s more difficult to study children for a variety of ethical reasons, you can’t just go into a community and start asking young people about their experiences with sexual assault. There are certain ethical issues that have to be resolved. Because of that we know a lot more about the abuse of adults than we do about the abuse of children. The issue that has come to light in Spirit Lake, you referred to the New York Times article, is disturbing and no doubt, describes a very dangerous situation for children, but I don’t think that Spirit Lake is the only community where this is happening. Sometimes the press tends to look at an extreme, egregious case and pull that out of context. I think what we’re hearing about Spirit Lake is happening all around the country.

In terms of the perpetrators, I think again, it’s difficult to know for sure when you have children involved, typical their abusers are going to be members of their own family or friends. In those cases it is likely that on a closed or remote reservation like that we’re looking at Native perpetrators as well as non-Native perpetrators.

Kolhatkar: Going back to the Violence Against Women Act, what do you make of the provisions that the Senate version has included and actually passed their bill with those provisions, not only to make it easier for tribes to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, but also, in terms of the visas that are given to women, victims of sexual violence from outside the country, immigrant women, college students and members of the LGBT community? Do you see there being a commonality, an overlapping of issues that you find, that this version of the law in your opinion is a good thing?

Deer: Absolutely. The Senate, when they’re working on the Violence Against Women Act, they are in touch with the experts in the field, the women attorneys, the advocates – people who work day to day with victims crime. And those experts have been telling Congress for the last several years that these are some holes that need to be filled in the war to end violence against women. When we have a marginalized group of people like undocumented immigrants or Native women or LGBT people, because with the marginalization happens in society, some of the victims from those communities are unable to get the same kind of legal support and so the experts from the field, the Senate had hearings, there was public comments made available, the experts said that these are the pieces we need in order to protect these marginalized populations. Now because they are all red flags for certain conservatives, they’ve then resented these changes, even though they are exactly what the field was telling us that what we need.

Kolhatkar: Now House Republicans are able to counter, saying they’ve passed their own version of the Violence Against Women Act, which is, I understand mostly preserves the original act. They’re blaming the Senate Democrats for politicizing the issue in an election year and rallying around their version of the act as a counter to the argument that Republicans are waging a war on women.

Deer: Sure. They do have a version of a Violence Against Women Act and it does largely sustain the existing laws which is exactly what the problem is – the laws are not sufficient, especially in the cases of these oppressed communities. So while they are accused of politicizing the Violence Against Women Act, all the Democrats have done is to listen to the experts. The experts have said, these women are in danger and we have to do more. And so because they are socially conservative problem issues, immigration and LGBT in particular, I would counter it’s the Republicans that have politicized the Violence Against Women Act.

Kolhatkar: So at this point, how do you foresee this bill playing out? Is it going to fall prey to an election year politicking, or is it possible that the status quo will stay as it is until after the election and then the issue may come up and by the time we may see a different makeup of Congress?

Deer: I’m unfortunately cynical enough at this point that I don’t think we will see this resolved before the election. That’s very disappointing because it sets a whole new precedence with VAWA, a piece of legislation that has been a bipartisan project for eighteen years. Unfortunately the way things stand today, as I understand them, I don’t believe it will be resolved until after November.

Kolhatkar: What do you hope for people to do for those who want to see the Senate version, a more progressive version of the bill pass? Is there any hope? I mean certainly Democrats in the House don’t have the numbers. Is there a call for even people who have Republican representatives in the House to urge them to support the Senate version of the bill?

Deer: I think that’s the best use of activists’ time at this point. I think a lot of it is education, I think there’s a certain segment of the right that will resist any bill that includes references to certain groups of people, but there are also very, very reasonable and moderate Republicans that may just not understand the extent of the problem and with some education and providing for instance, some of the statistics of the some of the data, maybe hopeful in terms of changing some of these votes. But again, I think, well I don’t want people to stop working on it, I do think that we will be see movement after the election.

Kolhatkar: Finally, going back to the issue of what Native American women are going through on the reservations, what are some efforts, some grassroots efforts that you might know off of women and their allies in addressing the epidemic and rape and violence against women on reservations?

Deer: Most tribal communities have very strong women in their communities that are doing this work intervening, whether they are being paid for it or not. But there are some tribal programs that have shelters, that are completely operated by Native women on that community’s land and those are the women that are truly the expert. The problem is that they know more about this issue than anyone else, but they are trying to keep their doors open 24 hours a day. So if we can provide more resources for those women out on the reservation, so that they can hire more staff, so that they can provide more services, then we’ll be to raise, amplify the volume of their stories so that we get the best information in order to put solutions together.

Kolhatkar: Well Sarah, I want to thank you very much for joining us today. Is there a website you’d like to recommend or any online resources about the issue the Violence Against Women Act?

Deer: I think the biggest presence in Washington is the most important right now for Native women and the Violence Against Women Act is the National Congress of the American Indians. Their website is:, National Congress of American Indians.

They have a task force specifically looking at VAWA. They have talking points, information, research on their website that can help explain the need for these provisions and Senate versions.

Special thanks to Brian Lee for transcribing this interview.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Violence Against Women Act stalled by Congressional Bickering”

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