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Exceptional Internet Story The Memo: Special Report: Status of U.S. Women by Rita Henley Jensen, Jennifer Waldref, Sharon Johnson, Allison Stevens, Cynthia L. Cooper, Marie Tessier, Lorraine Orlandi, Women’s eNews



Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California who is one of Congress’ staunchest anti-violence advocates, heads into the next session with her mind on money.

Money, that is, for the Violence Against Women Act, which sets aside federal dollars to prevent violence, prosecute offenders and treat victims. Lawmakers have not yet agreed on funding levels for fiscal 2009 but will likely do so early this year.

Sanchez predicted lawmakers will come under pressure to cut funding due to the effects of the credit crisis and ailing economy.

“The reality is, with these bailouts. . . we’re spending money that we don’t have, which means there will be an even bigger impact on discretionary funds that Congress will see next year,” she said.

But she hopes Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who has championed domestic violence programs in the Senate, will use his new influence in the White House to persuade lawmakers to “at least hold the line” on spending.

Recession, War Raise Risks

Sanchez said that that even though the realistic focus may be on preventing cutbacks, VAWA could actually use more funding, since domestic violence rises during economic downturns and in times of war, when members of the military often return in poor mental health. At the same time, victims of violence and assault have fewer places to turn because governments tend to cut back on social services in recessions.

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The Obama administration is slated to deliver its budget in February, which will serve as a blueprint for the Democrat-controlled Congress when it doles out federal dollars. But with a softer economy curtailing federal revenues from taxes and a new administration focused on pouring money into economic-stimulus efforts, meat-and-potato social programs like VAWA may have a harder time attracting lawmakers’ support.

“It’s very difficult to say whether more funds will be put towards that direction,” said

Sanchez, who spoke about the subject at a panel discussion sponsored by Women’s eNews at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last August and revisited it in a recent follow-up interview.

Originally passed in 1994, the landmark law was reauthorized in 2005 and helps prosecute offenders and helps shelters, organizations and programs across the country keep their doors open. But it has yet to receive full funding.

Democrats, who tend to favor federal spending on social programs more than Republicans, hold firm control of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994. And with Biden assuming the vice presidency, a powerful ally of the anti-violence movement is ensconced in the administration.

Biden Authored VAWA

Biden authored and shepherded VAWA to passage in 1994. He has since introduced the International Violence Against Women Act to expand anti-violence funding in foreign aid and has also worked to expand the federal response to domestic violence by creating a network of 100,000 lawyers willing to volunteer legal assistance on behalf of victims.

When the Violence Against Women Act was first passed, Congress authorized $1.6 billion over six years, or $266 million a year, for programs to aid victims of domestic and sexual violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.

Congress reauthorized the law in 2000, setting aside $3.33 billion from 2001 to 2005 for the programs, or $666 million per year. In 2005, Congress reauthorized the law again, giving the programs $4 billion from 2007 to 2011, or $800 million per year.

But the actual allocation of money is subject to a congressional vote, and lawmakers have spent less than the amount that was approved, providing $558 million in fiscal 2007 for VAWA programs and $573 million in fiscal 2008.

While women are less likely to be victims of crime overall, they are far more likely to suffer from domestic violence and sexual assault, according to the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Nearly 1 in 3 U.S. women say they have been physically abused or sexually assaulted by a husband or acquaintance, according to the fund. On average, more than three women die at the hands of husbands or intimate partners every day, and about half of all female victims of intimate violence report an injury of some type.

Traffick Lights

During this congressional session, Sanchez also hopes to shine a light on human trafficking, a crime in which people–mostly women and girls from developing countries–are often forced into sex work.

In 2005 and 2008, President Bush signed into law legislation reauthorizing federal funds to combat human trafficking, but Sanchez said the issue will get more attention with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. “It’s an area she’s very interested in,” Sanchez said. “She will be making even more of an emphasis on that.”

As the highest ranking woman on the House Armed Services Committee, Sanchez has taken a special interest in issues affecting women in the military, such as sexual assault.

She is responsible for including language in recent defense authorization bills that made it easier for victims to press sexual assault charges in the military. The language modernized the military’s approach in prosecuting sexual abuse cases by shifting legal burdens from the victim to the perpetrator.

In the past, military law largely reflected the outdated civilian justice system’s focus on the victim’s sexual history and reputation, Sanchez said.

“The focus was really on the victim. That was really the way that it existed in the military until we changed the law.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.