April 23, 2012

THE FIRST TIME Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), in 2000, it expanded the reach of the law, better meeting the needs of older victims and disabled individuals. The second renewal brought programs for teen victims of domestic and sexual abuse. This year, 61 senators have co-sponsored a reauthorization that would further improve the law’s effectiveness and meet the changing needs of victims.

Let’s hope that bipartisan support — a fixture in the law’s history — does not fall prey to presidential politics and the increasing stridency concerning which party best represents women’s issues.

Enacted in 1994, VAWA has twice been reauthorized by Congress with unanimous Senate support. This year Senate Republicans opposed the bill in the Judiciary Committee because of provisions that extend protections to gays, lesbians, transgendered people, Native Americans and battered immigrant women. They essentially accused Democrats of using the cloak of battered women to force approval on what they see as controversial social issues. “Maybe then they could accuse you of not being supportive of fighting violence against women?” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told the New York Times. Mr. Sessions and other Republicans on the committee voted for an alternative version that they characterized as a clean reauthorization without unnecessarily political provisions.

A comprehensive committee report convincingly details gaps in current programs as identified by law enforcement officers, victim-service providers, judges and health-care professions. No one — gay or straight, man or woman, legal or undocumented — should be denied protections against domestic abuse or sexual violence. The proposed changes are by no means radical. They include a provision that would bar a shelter from turning away a lesbian who has been beaten by her female partner and adjustments in funding formulas to better address the needs of male victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Some changes, such as increasing the number of temporary visas for battered immigrant women, are supported by law enforcement. And the need to do more to protect Native American women is supported by a regional survey by University of Oklahoma researchers that showed that three out of five Native American women had been assaulted by their spouses or partners and a nationwide survey that found that one-third of all Native American women will be raped in their lifetime.

The impact of this landmark law, as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last week in urging its passage, has been “remarkable,” with the annual incidence of domestic violence decreasing by more than 50 percent since its passage. In addition to addressing unmet needs, the bill consolidates programs and cuts the authorization level by more than $135 million a year, to $695 million. Democrats and the White House are right to push for approval.