Violence Against Women Act Up for Reauthorization
As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act this year, the nearly two-decade-old legislation will finally address an issue that hasn’t been dealt with federally—sexual assault and domestic violence against Native American women.
Originally drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden, the VAWA was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 to recognize the severity of crimes related to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and violence against women. At the time, the National Organization for Women called the legislation "the greatest breakthrough in civil rights for women in nearly two decades." The act provides funding for investigating and prosecuting domestic violence, as well as for emergency family shelters and domestic abuse hotlines.
In an effort to protect Native women, the Department of Justice has added provisions to the act, hoping Congress will approve them when reauthorizing it. These provisions would:
- Recognize the possibility for concurrent criminal tribal jurisdiction to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault Indian spouses, intimate partners, or dating partners, or who violate protection orders, while in Indian country.
- Ensure tribal courts have civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders against Indians and non-Indians.
- Change the Federal Criminal Code so that assaulting a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner by strangling or suffocation would be a ten-year offense; assaulting a spouse or partner resulting in substantial bodily injury would carry a five-year sentence; and assaulting a person by striking, beating, or wounding would be subject to one-year of jail time.
Congress reauthorized the VAWA in 2000 and in 2005. This year, experts expect it to again be reauthorized. New provisions in 2000 provided for the establishment of the Office on Violence Against Women within the U.S. Justice Department, which has the authority to develop federal policy related to issues of domestic and partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking.
Phll McGraw, host of the daytime talk show “Dr. Phil,” recently testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to review the VAWA. McGraw stressed the importance of reauthorizing the act, adding that “the decline in domestic violence that we've seen over the past decade is evidence that this act is working. It saves lives.” Each member of the Senate committee said they planned to reauthorize the bill.
A study from the University of Oklahoma shows that nearly three of five Native American women have been assaulted by a partner. Another survey funded by the National Institute of Justice indicated that one third of all Native American women will be raped in their lives and, in some areas, Native women are murdered ten times more often than the national average.
As of now, Native women are legally situated such that crimes against them cannot be prosecuted effectively.
“Until recently, no matter how violent the offense, tribal courts could only sentence Indian offenders to one year in prison,” said Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich. “But tribal courts have no authority at all to prosecute a non-Indian, even if he lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member. Tribal police officers who respond to a domestic-violence call, only to discover that the accused is non-Indian and therefore outside the tribe's criminal jurisdiction, often mistakenly believe they cannot even make an arrest. Not surprisingly, abusers who are not arrested are more likely to repeat, and escalate, their attacks.”
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.