In this era of intense partisanship, issues that unite Republicans and Democrats are hard to come by, but reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act could be one. Addressing violence against women and human trafficking are issues that have historically united both parties, dating back to the passage of VAWA in 1994, sponsored by then-Senator Joseph Biden and strongly supported by Senator Bob Dole, who died last month. Legislators, however, should take a critical view of several suggested amendments to the law that could jeopardize safety for victims in various dangerous situations.
Physical assaults and human trafficking have soared during the Covid-19 pandemic. State and local lockdowns have led people to spend more time on social media, which means increased exposure, especially for children, to traffickers. And lockdowns forced people in abusive relationships to spend even more time with their partners and curtailed opportunities to move out and earn money on their own. For those already in troubled situations, the lockdowns made life even more dangerous.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million people annually in the United States—nearly 20 people per minute—are physically abused by an intimate partner. Thirty-three percent of women have experienced some form of physical violence from an intimate partner, while 25 percent of women have experienced some form of severe violence. Additional research has found that these patterns accelerated during the pandemic by 10 percent to 20 percent. These trends have put additional burdens on shelter and advocacy groups.
The Violence Against Women Act provides funding and resources for these groups, but the funding is currently in limbo. The House reauthorized VAWA in 2019, but the bill remains mired in the Senate—and the path to renewal is not as straightforward as it might seem. Republicans have identified important concerns about amendments in the legislation authorized by the House. For example, the bill contains a section on “restorative practice.” As Iowa senator Joni Ernst explains, this part funds programs that let abusers negotiate with their victims for the purpose of “collectively seeking accountability from the accused.” Restorative practice poses substantial risks for victims, ranging from producing new threats to revisiting past trauma.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has underscored similar concerns about the restorative-practice section of the bill, as well as other issues. Though some have argued in favor of restorative practice, these methods have not been tested on a large enough scale to determine their advisability. An alternative, compromise approach would be to direct federal funds to programs focusing on prevention. This could include applications that mitigate the risk of human trafficking—like Canopy, a software plugin that lets parents block inappropriate content on their children’s devices—or community programs that contribute to building stronger families. Preventing a crisis is easier than dealing with one after the fact.
Many senators are ready to negotiate in good faith over these and other matters, but policymakers on both sides of the aisle need to set aside their talking points and work toward a tactical reauthorization. As a new year begins, legislators have an opportunity to honor Dole’s legacy by reauthorizing VAWA and standing up for a cause that all Americans can support.