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Happy New Year! VAWA’s Dead

January 3, 2013

Camille Hayes

Sorry, activist lady, Congress will not be doing its job anytime soon.

The Violence Against Women Act is dead. Defunct, extinct, “expired” in both the legislative and the Victorian senses of the word. At least that’s what you’d think if you read headlines about it in the last day or so, many of which emphasize the drama of the bill’s expiration, without describing what will happen to domestic violence victims as a result. The answer is, in the short term, basically nothing. Like the fiscal cliff, the VAWA deadline was somewhat arbitrary and the consequences mostly deferred.

That’s because the current funding cycle is already underway, so all the VAWA money will keep flowing where it needs to go, at least until March 27 (the federal appropriations deadline) and if legislators haven’t reached an agreement at that point, allfederal funding is in question and everyone should prepare to be held hostage once again by the rightmost fringe of the House GOP, and John Boehner’s pathetic inability to control his caucus at all, ever.

So VAWA’s expiration isn’t a crisis (yet), and people working in domestic violence were prepared for it to expire, given the perfect storm of legislative deadlines and general fuckery Congress set itself up for at the end of 2012. And even though the VAWA fight revealed fractures in the bipartisan consensus that once surrounded the bill, I’m an optimist, so I always find . . . sorry. I couldn’t even finish that sentence, because I am totally NOT an optimist, but I am a pragmatist, so I tend to see positive outcomes in negative situations (and vice versa, which is less fun). The good I see coming from this is that it’s gotten domestic violence on the radar of mainstream feminists in a way it hasn’t been since at least the ‘90s. One thing I realized when I started working in this field is that, while American feminists pay a lot of lip service to this cause—“violence against women” is always on the laundry list of items feminists say they’re working on—the reality is that the mainstream movement has mostly abandoned the day-today work of this problem, leaving the specialized advocacy agencies to fight the battle mostly alone.

The problem with this is that those agencies are usually small and under-funded, and barely have the resources just to do the human services work that’s piled on them daily. Many of the long-term, big-picture tasks that are part of any lasting social change efforts (media work, public education, community organizing) are passed over in favor of, you know, rescuing the person who’s fleeing her homicidal boyfriend. Shelters and advocates can sometimes do big-picture work on a small scale, but to really reach people who aren’t already aligned with the cause, you need the influence that only big, well-funded mainstream orgs have, e.g., the National Organization for Women or the National Women’s Law Center. But those groups seem to have decided that, between the wage gap and the endless, dispiriting slog that is defending reproductive rights in this backassward country, they don’t have the bandwidth to do much concrete work with or for domestic violence groups. Now, with everybody talking about VAWA and a few fresh reminders of how awful battery statistics still are, and how many people are still dying, maybe those big organizations will take another look at what they’re actually doing to help end violence, and make a New Year’s resolution to do more. Not that I’m optimistic about that.

My chapter in the forthcoming book “Get Out of My Crotch!” is all about the nasty Congressional fight over VAWA; you can read an excerpt of my essay here. If you want to pre-order a copy of the book (and why wouldn’t you, it’s called Get Out of My Crotch!) go here.

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