VAWA Reauthorization—It’s More Than Politics

VAWA Reauthorization—It’s More Than Politics

Caitlin Pratt*

The keynote speaker at this year’s Harvard Journal of Law and Gender symposium, Transcending Barriers: Strategies for Change in Transgender Rights, was Professor Dean Spade. In the context of discussing his approach as a scholar and practitioner, which he calls critical trans politics, Professor Spade questioned what he calls the U.S. narrative that law change (law reform) is the answer for groups experiencing violence and marginalization.[1]

Professor Spade acknowledged the reality that changes are generally made incrementally but cautioned us to measure our incremental steps thoughtfully.[2] He offered examples of questions we can ask ourselves to help us determine whether a particular change is really a step forward or if it will actually move the law in the wrong direction.[3] They are:

  • Are we leaving anybody out? Are we dividing the constituency? Are we leaving out some of the most vulnerable people?
  • Will this provide actual relief? Or is it just window dressing to make the state or the system look better?
  • Will this build or expand harmful systems? Or will it help dismantle them?[4]

The recent debate in Congress over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) brought the importance of this analysis into striking relief for me. Below, I will provide some background on VAWA and the debate over its reauthorization this year. I will then analyze the differences between the competing bills in terms of the questions set forth by Professor Spade.

What is VAWA?

President Bill Clinton signed the original Violence Against Women Act[5] on September 13, 1994.[6] VAWA was the first federal legislation that acknowledged domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.[7] It also included a provision giving victims the right to sue their attackers in federal court, but this was struck down by the Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison.[8] In addition, the law provided federal resources to encourage community-coordinated responses to violence.[9]

Congress has reauthorized VAWA twice—in 2000 and 2005.[10] The reauthorization in 2000 improved the foundation established by the 1994 legislation by creating a victim legal assistance program and by expanding the definition of crime to include dating violence and stalking.[11] The 2005 reauthorization created new programs to meet the emerging needs of communities working to end violence.[12]

VAWA expired in 2011,[13] and Congress is currently debating its reauthorization. Both the House and Senate have passed reauthorization bills. The Senate version passed on April 26, 2012 by a vote of 68 to 31, with 15 Republicans in favor and no Democrats against.[14] The House version was introduced the next day and soon thereafter passed by a vote of 222-205.[15] The vote was largely along party lines with 6 Democrats voting in favor and 23 Republicans opposed.[16] The two bills are very different in ways essential to victims.

House v. Senate

The differences between the House and Senate bills to reauthorize VAWA are not just political—they have important policy implications.

The key differences between the bills have been highlighted by domestic violence advocacy groups[17] and break down neatly in terms of the questions offered by Professor Spade:

  • Are we leaving anybody out? Are we dividing the constituency? Are we leaving out some of the most vulnerable people?
    • The House bill excludes victims who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).[18]
    • The House bill fails to protect Native American women by limiting access to justice on tribal lands.[19]
    • The House bill makes immigrant victims of domestic violence less safe. It makes the immigration process longer and allows abusers to participate in it.[20] It also limits the U-visa program, which encourages and protects non-citizen victims who work with law enforcement to bring abusers to justice.[21]
    • The House bill undermines VAWA housing protections.[22] It fails to require housing providers to adopt certain emergency housing plans and notify victims of their rights at critical housing junctures (for example, at eviction).[23]
  • Will this provide actual relief? Or is it just window dressing to make the state or the system look better?
    • The House bill imposes large mandatory minimum sentences on abusers.[24] This is a “solution in search of a problem,” which can actually hurt victims by discouraging them from reporting abuse.[25]
    • The House bill includes additional auditing requirements that divert money from victim services to bureaucracy even though there is strong evidence that grants are currently being used effectively.[26]


I see the current VAWA debate as case-in-point for Professor Spade’s argument that some “incremental change” actually moves the law backward and for his cautioning that we must be thoughtful when engaging in law reform.

I cannot be sure whether Professor Spade would unqualifiedly support the Senate bill to reauthorize VAWA despite its many advantages over the House bill. I imagine he would be concerned, for example, by the immigration provisions, which could be seen as reinforcing harmful systems (immigration) by creating exceptions to bad rules (immigration prohibitions) rather than getting rid of them. By contrast, I am absolutely certain that Professor Spade would oppose the House bill.

The Republican bill is not just a smaller step forward than the Senate bill. It is a giant step backward—for the law, for victims of domestic violence, and for our society. The House bill does not just happen to meet each of the qualifications laid out by Professor Spade, it is the reason he is concerned.

This bill is part of a divide and conquer strategy. Rather than protect all victims of domestic violence, it separates victims into two groups: those who are worthy of protection and those who are not. And those who are not are the most vulnerable. It aims to separate those who are used to being separate—historically marginalized groups such as LGBTQ, immigrants, and Native Americans.

Victims of domestic violence will have their strongest voice together. Those who seek to divide them want to weaken their voice and thereby make them easier to ignore. Being ignored is not good for victims. The House bill is not good for victims.

Cite as: Cite as: Pratt, Caitlin, VAWA Reathorization–It’s More Than Politics, HARV. J.L. & GENDER ONLINE BLOG, http://harvardjlg.com/2012/07/vawa-reauthorization-its-more-than-politics (July 11, 2012)

* J.D. Candidate, Harvard Law School, Class of 2014. MPP Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School, Class of 2014.

[1] Dean Spade, Assistant Professor, Seattle Univ. Sch. of Law, Keynote Address at the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender Symposium: Transcending Barriers: Strategies for Change in Transgender Rights (Mar. 30, 2012), available at http://kiwi6.com/file/c5zx5tb08s.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Violence Against Women Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, § 40001 (1994) (prior to 2000 amendment).

[6] Violence Against Women Act, National Network to End Domestic Violence, http://www.nnedv.org/policy/issues/vawa.html (last visited July 1, 2012) [hereinafter NNEDV].

[7] Id.

[8] 529 U.S. 598 (2000).

[9] NNEDV, supra note 6.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 1925), GovTrack.us, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/s1925 (last visited July 1, 2012).

[15] Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012 (H.R. 4970), GovTrack.us, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4970 (last visited July 1, 2012).

[16] Id.

[17] For more information and more comprehensive summaries, see, e.g., Ann Garcia, Crosby Burns, and Lindsay Rosenthal, The Top 10 Ways the House Version of the Violence Against Women Act Neglects Domestic Violence Victims, Center for American Progress (May 18, 2012), http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2012/05/vawa_top10.html; FACT SHEET: NTF opposition to HR 4970, National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, http://4vawa.org/pages/fact-sheet-ntf-opposition-to-hr-4970 (last visited July 2, 2012);

[18] FACT SHEET: NTF opposition to HR 4970, supra note 17.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] FACT SHEET: NTF opposition to HR 4970, supra note 17.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

6 thoughts on “VAWA Reauthorization—It’s More Than Politics

  1. The Violence Against Women Act should be abolished. It should be the Violence Against Humans Act. Putting laws into place specifically for women is WRONG, and it’s precisely what ruined my life.

    I’m a male. I was married for almost 4 yrs, when my wife decided she wanted a divorce. Instead of telling me that she wanted a divorce, she simply went to our local courthouse and falsely accused me of “domestic abuse”. I have NEVER been abusive toward a female EVER in my life… not mentally, emotionally, and certainly not physically. None the less, a protective order was issued, and 2 police officers came to my house and ordered me to leave and not come back, or I would be arrested and taken to jail. I left very calmly and cooperatively (if I had resisted leaving my OWN house, I would have been IMMEDIATELY taken to jail), and then slept in my car for 14 days… Then came the “Protective Order hearing”…. the FIRST and ONLY chance for me to defend myself against FALSE accusations of “domestic abuse”. I thought the judge would see right through my wife’s lies, but I was VERY WRONG! My wife ADMITTED that she had lied (under oath) to get a protective order, but the judge completely disregarded that… his response was “I don’t see where she is in any danger, but I’m going to extend the protective order for 60 days, because you guys can’t get along.” EXACT words. She later got the order extended for 2 years! That was 3 years ago, and I was NEVER allowed to go back. She sold the house, and LEGALLY took EVERYTING I had, except my car… all from a protective order. Yes, it IS that SIMPLE! A woman can LEGALLY STEAL everything a man has, by simply FALSELY ACCUSING him of abuse! I watched it happen before my eyes, and I could do nothing to stop it! I tried to have her held accountable for lying under oath, and falsely accusing me of abuse, and found out it CAN’T be done! The commonwealth attorney (Roanoke City, VA) told me: “We have never, and will never prosecute anyone, for lying to get a protective order.” Those were his EXACT words! I remember it like it was yesterday. I have NEVER abused ANY female in my life, but I was labelled a “domestic abuser” and lost nearly everything I had, because of how EASY it is to get a protective order. This is ALL because of the VAWA act, and state legislation that allows people to be thrown out of their own homes, when NO abuse ever took place… They don’t need a trial, or ANY evidence… all they need is a woman’s accusation. I am also an Army veteran, and now live alone (and I will for the rest of my life), because I KNOW how easy it is for a woman to take EVERYTHING! Thank you VAWA. I CANNOT have a relationship with a female EVER…. and there are THOUSANDS of other men, just like me. Stop making laws that are BIASED from the very start! The VAWA act should have NEVER been… change it to VAHA (Violence Against Humans Act). Completely innocent people are being put in jail and having their lives RUINED by these laws.


    Deke Reed

    1. In response to Deke’s comment. I provide legal assistance to people seeking domestic violence restraining orders. I feel I must inform you that the law is not biased against you. There are men who rely on VAWA for protection too. Evidence is required to get a restraining order. The laws governing restraining orders also protect the rights of the accused. I agree that the name could be changed to reflect the content of the law. VAHA sounds good. We are all human and all deserve a chance a peaceful existence.

      I am sorry your divorce ended up the way it did for you, but that is not a result of VAWA. Sounds like you have a lot of lingering resentment towards your ex-wife, to the point that you are willing to make potentially libelous statements here (lied under oath, etc.). That, in itself could be considered abuse. So to say you have never abused a woman sounds to be less than perfectly truthful. Let her go already for your own peace. She likely would not have needed that restraining order if you were truly willing to do so.

      Victims of stalking, domestic abuse, and rape male and female, need VAWA. The name reflects the overwhelming and undeniable prevalence of male violence against women, but does not in its content discriminate against men.

  2. Discussing the notion that any bill leaves anyone out of the equal protection of the law, without beginning that discussion with the most obvious group, MEN, is an exercise in denial, of to just what extent the fact of maleness has become a legal stamp of unequal status in every realm of the law.

    VAWA programs are so tilted toward a presumption of guilt on the part of men that the topic of due process as an equal right enjoyed by all has become a mockery of itself. It is astonishing how people educated in the law and continually calling for equal rights and equal treatment can even get past the cover page on a bill naming WOMEN as their own special-interest group with special status under law, without recognizing VAWA for what it has been from the beginning: a gynocentric power grab deployed on the entire system of law enforcement, prosecution, litigation and adjudication around the nation.

    Not seeing this state-within-the-state for what it is, an extra-legal insurrection against the rule of law, is not wanting to see it. The facts of the law and its programs themselves show a preponderance of evidence that the resulting system is a political movement masked in the legitimacy of poorly-scrutinized lawmaking and attended by even worse scrutiny upon its practices, which is actively seeking, and acquiring, the power to become a law unto itself.

  3. …and there it is, folks.  Above, you will see a comment by Elizabeth Brown, where she accuses me of abuse, anonymously through the internet.   She says: "So to say you have never abused a woman sounds to be less than perfectly truthful."  This is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.  This woman (and many others like her), think that ANYTHING is abuse.  They get ahead in life, by playing the "victim".  This woman knows NOTHING about me, but she is willing to acuse me of ABUSE for saying that my ex-wife "lied under oath"… Elizabeth calls that "potentially libelous" and says "that, in itself could be considered abuse".  This is EXACTLY the kind of thing that destroyed my life. 

    The worst part of it all?  Apparently this woman (who will accuse anyone of abuse, for any reason), "provides legal assistance to people seeking domestic violence restraining orders".  It's no wonder why there are so many FALSE Protective Orders issued in this country, that are ruining innocent people's lives.



Leave a Reply