When Congress returns from recess after Labor Day, it will take up pending legislation that would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and strengthen hate crimes legislation by adding gender, sexual orientation and disability.
The centerpiece of domestic violence legislation is the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, due to expire Oct. 1 and awaiting Congressional reauthorization. Its enactment marked the first time in U.S. history that violence against women was recognized as gender-based violence of epidemic proportions.
The act has considerable support because of popular and life-saving federally funded programs, and candidates like to say they are pro-women and tough on crime. Political maneuvering, however, has delayed approval.
“Programs will be forced to shut their doors or reduce services,” warns NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. Lack of funding would seriously affect a nationwide network of domestic violence programs, safe houses, social services, education, ground-breaking criminal justice and judicial education programs. (Note: NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund is the publisher of Women’s Enews).
It would seem simple to those who understand the epidemic. The Violence Against Women Act already has saved and improved thousands of lives. Scores of advocacy groups have formed a nationwide emergency task force and issued an urgent call to action to save the Violence Against Women Act.
And there isn’t much time. When Congress reconvenes on Sept. 6, “we’ve got to hit the ground running,” says Pat Reuss, vice president of government relations for the Legal Defense and Education Fund and chair of the task force. “At most, we’ve got four weeks to work on VAWA’s reauthorization.”
During the Congressional recess, constituents are contacting their lawmakers and urging them to support the legislation to fund popular programs.
While the programs have been widely supported, the Supreme Court last May struck down a key redress component that enabled women to sue their rapists in federal court for damages.
Despite the Violence Against Women Act, whether a woman can get justice in the courts depends very much on where she lives. Widespread gender bias in state and local criminal justice systems means crimes against women are often ignored or receive minimal punishment.
Women also would be protected under the pending Hate Crimes Prevention Act that would allow the FBI to investigate and prosecute crimes determined to be bias-motivated. Existing legislation specifies race, religion, national origin or color, but the bill adds gender, sexual orientation and disability.
Although some states have added gender to hate crimes legislation, progress is slow. In 1990, only seven out of 31 states with hate crimes statutes included gender, or 23 percent. Today, 10 years later, that figure has only increased to 19 out of 43 states with hate crimes laws, or 44 percent.
Although the hate crimes act was passed by the Senate in June, the House version has been vigorously opposed by Republicans and supporters of the bill say that tremendous public pressure is required.
Opposition to the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is due in part to the inclusion of sexual orientation on the list of motives for bias crimes, which alarms religious conservatives and others. Including gender also disturbs some lawmakers who say existing laws, such as those against rape and assault, are sufficient to deal with crime.
Other lawmakers seem more concerned about the law’s impact on the court system that what it means for the victims of violence.
“Some lawmakers are concerned that every rape will be considered a hate crime, that the courts will be clogged and resources overloaded,” explains Jody Rabham of the National Council of Jewish Women.
“The problem, “is confusion about what constitutes gender-based crime,” as well as the sheer number of crimes against women.
“Our response,” says Rabham who is associate director of the council’s Washington office, “is that gender-based hate crime will be subject to the same scrutiny as any other hate crime.”
Women’s advocates point out that implementation of the Violence Against Women Act demonstrated that violence against women, even rape, can be handled as a bias crime without overwhelming the system.
But if including gender in hate crimes legislation is difficult, it barely registers in discussions of hate speech. Yet hate speech against women is reaching astonishing levels in the media, pop culture and everyday life. This gives a powerful indication of bias and can give impetus to violence, experts say.
In a recent survey of bias language on primetime television, to be published this fall, derogatory words directed against women far outweighed similar language against any other group. Women were the target of 52 percent of the total, with men following at 32 percent. Ten other groups combined accounted for 16 percent.
The fact that women were targeted at a higher rate than all other groups combined raises questions about the influence that bias language in the media may have on violence against women. Activists say that hate speech can lead to hate violence, although this is debated. Civil libertarians and others are concerned that restrictions on even odious speech can lead to further unwanted restrictions on liberties.
The tensions between individual liberties and human rights and the need to find a humane and civilized balance are especially evident in the struggle to secure equal rights and protections for women.
Mimi Yahn is a free-lance journalist and feminist essayist living in New Orleans.