Victims of Gender Violence Find Solutions Slipping Away
by Juhu Thukral
What will the next president mean for the way we live and pursue safety in our daily lives? For most women, fear and apprehension of assault or domestic violence is pervasive. We all know someone who has been raped or battered, or maybe it's happened to us: living with and negotiating the fear is a part of the daily lives of most women.
I saw a particularly ugly manifestation of gender violence when I worked with survivors of human trafficking. A common way for traffickers to lure young women into sex work against their will is to first pose as their attentive boyfriend. Once the woman is hooked, the trafficker rapes her to set her straight and to terrify and isolate her. The pain and trauma my clients experienced made it clear that we need solutions on gender-based violence that actually value all victims and survivors, and prevent these things from happening in the first place. We also need to address the complex needs of those who have experienced this abuse in a manner that lets them lead the way without shame, guilt or pressure.
This will continue to be a focus for people concerned with human rights, regardless of who is president. Potentially, the president can propose and urge Congress to pass landmark legislation or can veto it, issue executive orders, or instruct federal agencies to do their work in a different way. The president can act as our national voice and conscience by shaping public discourse and using the presidency as a bully pulpit on issues of the day.
President Obama has made a number of statements and created initiatives to address violence against women and girls, but he has not focused with passionate engagement on the issue or made it a core concern. Similarly, throughout his campaign, Mitt Romney has said that he hopes that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which became snared in an embattled and politicized reauthorization, is passed, but his support is tepid.
Leaving Victims in the Dust
Controversy over the Violence Against Women Act stems from new provisions that, if passed, would weaken protections for victims. Other questions have arisen over the U.S. implementation of a global strategy against gender-based violence.
Until this year, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been reauthorized as needed without much political fanfare, but now it is at risk of being reauthorized in a shrunken fashion with many of its protections undermined -- or not passed at all. Advocates of women's, immigrants' and LGBT rights are outraged because some legislators support anti-immigrant and police-oriented changes to the law.
Earlier versions of VAWA created safe pathways to citizenship for immigrants who were victims or survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other serious crimes if they met certain requirements, such as being helpful in criminal investigations against perpetrators. Immigrant victims also could get legal status if they were married to an abusive spouse through whom they should have rightfully secured immigration status, if not for the fact they were forced to leave the abusive marriage. Without the ability to leave, immigrant women are left under the thumb of an abusive partner.
This past year, the U.S. House of Representatives loaded additional requirements onto VAWA, making it difficult for people without immigration status to secure safety or to access these rights. For example, one provision requires that investigations must be in active pursuit or else the immigrant crime victim's help doesn't count and she will not qualify for legal status. If a local law enforcement agency does not prioritize a case, victims are out in the cold. Rather than helping victims move to a place of safety and stability, VAWA would rest on police enforcement and change the focus of anti-violence efforts to a matter of local prosecutorial discretion rather than the needs of the survivor.
Fighting intimate and gender-based violence means recognizing a fundamental truth: law enforcement does play a crucial role in addressing violence, but it is not an appropriate umbrella for large-scale social change. The criminal justice system simply cannot provide the affirmative support needed by survivors.
The House also wants to add extra steps, such as face-to-face interviews for survivors of abuse who are seeking marriage-related status. This puts people in additional danger, forcing them to navigate more arduous requirements, while trying to keep an abusive spouse at bay. Victims must "prove" they are deserving of help. Finally, the House version of VAWA does not include specific mention of LGBT people as possible victims of gender-based violence. Without this specific language, it becomes more difficult for LGBT victims to access the services, protection and support they need.
When it comes to VAWA and the White House, the real champion has been Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote and sponsored it when it became law in 1994, as well as reauthorization of the related federal anti-trafficking law several years later. And while the White House threatened to veto a watered-down VAWA, it is Biden who came out with the most impassioned defense and knowledgeable language on gender-based violence.
Biden was also a driving force behind another important move by the administration in the FBI's January 2012 change of the definition of rape used in Uniform Crime Report data collection. The old definition was written in the 1920s and only covered forcible vaginal penetration by a man's penis. The new definition more accurately reflects the kinds of acts that make up sexual assault, including oral and anal penetration, and also makes clear that a person of any gender can be abused in this way. The change is important because it will allow the FBI to gather more accurate information about rape and sexual assault across the country, ultimately pointing to more appropriate policy interventions.
Half-Hearted Measures Trouble the Waters
In another gender-based violence effort, President Obama issued an Executive Order in August 2012 on violence against women and girls in the global context. The order builds on a document called the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, and creates a federal Interagency Working Group to be co-chaired by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
While this sounds good on its face, experience with working groups and federal bureaucracies shows that monitoring and continued advocacy are key, and there is no real clarity as to what this new initiative actually means.
The language sounds well-meaning and generically helpful -- after all, it is all about improving coordination and funding government programs ending violence against women and girls. But there is no real specificity about what values, methods and stakeholders the working group will prioritize. Many questions linger. Will the important stakeholders be police and government enforcement agencies, and not survivors, as they are in House VAWA revisions? How will these efforts address the trauma or confusion of victims? Will there be an imperative that victims and survivors who get help be "good victims" who have no taint on their record? How will survivors in the most vulnerable situations or from the most marginalized communities be treated?
On the positive side, the new U.S. strategy makes explicit mention of people in the LGBT community, noting that they are a particularly marginalized group in many countries. Contrast this with the current efforts to erase specific mention of LGBT people from VAWA, and it is clear the president can and does make a difference.
But, the very fact that USAID is one of the prime agencies involved in this working group is disconcerting for advocates and survivors who are already troubled by the U.S. government's commitment to those who are the most vulnerable to violence and living on the margins of society. USAID is the main federal agency that administers foreign aid around the world. In this role, it is also one of the main federal agencies that gives out money limited by what is called "the anti-prostitution pledge".
This pledge is basically an order by USAID and other agencies that organizations receiving federal funds may not engage in activity that appears to support the rights and empowerment of sex workers, as these efforts may be seen as "promoting prostitution," which the U.S. government has decided is harmful and therefore opposes. This policy directly affects programs aiming to promote health and safety among sex workers: any program that helps, and does not condemn, sex workers can be viewed as "promoting prostitution."
With this history, and without a very clear articulation of how the U.S. strategy and working group will set priorities, it is easy to read the president's new initiative as only helping those victims who seem the most palatable and present the least controversy. The result may leave lovely language that makes no real impact on those who are already the least supported and most in need.
Fight Goes On
The reality is that so much of policy and best practice around gender-based violence happens at the state and local level. This is due in part to the growing trend of reliance on the criminal justice system as the solution of first resort in addressing gender-based violence, and much of criminal justice is handled on the state and local level.
Arresting perpetrators of violence is prioritized over making sure the victim or survivor feels safe and has been given the space to find his or her own voice in the healing process. The sprint to arrest perpetrators of violence means that victims inevitably get arrested also -- when a batterer can show police the wounds on his or her body, police and prosecutors are most amenable to bringing in both parties and letting the courts sort it out. Other types of victim assistance is tangled into and tied up with investigation or prosecution.
Efforts to focus on alternative solutions -- such as leadership development and organizing of survivors, provision of legal and social services, funding for economic support and cultural advocacy -- are undermined, and the bulk of funding is diverted elsewhere.
In many ways, progressive work on gender violence will remain the same, regardless of who is president. An agenda for eliminating gender-based violence needs to address root causes and solutions based in a framework built on dignity, the respect of human rights and efforts to sustain the autonomy and independent voice of survivors.
Strategies are required to address the needs and priorities of all survivors and victims, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, socioeconomic class or the type of work in which they engage. Our efforts will need to focus on providing empowerment, services that meet the needs of survivors and victims, and on prevention programs that address and articulate the reality that perpetrators must stop engaging in violence. Only then will we see true change that relies on investing in the future, rather than trying to clean up incidents of harm once they have happened.
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