February 19 2012

VAWA: A Misguided Attempt to Combat Injustice

Christina Villegas

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). New provisions and programs targeting the LGBT community, illegal immigrants, and Indian tribes are among a few of the latest additions.

For the first time in the seventeen year history of the VAWA, reauthorization legislation was reported strictly along party lines with every Republican on the committee voting against it.

In typical form, The New York Times immediately concluded that the opposition was driven “largely by an antigay, anti-immigrant agenda.” And, as frequently happens, the substance of genuine political deliberation was clouded by a string of ad hominem attacks.

The real disagreements, however, are far more substantive in nature.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and primary sponsor of the reauthorization bill, defended the reauthorization stating: “One thing I know from my time as a prosecutor, and I would hope it is something we can all agree on, is that all victims count. All victims deserve protection.”

The irony with this proclamation is that Leahy’s contention “that all victims count” is precisely what has driven much of the opposition to the VAWA and its current manifestation.

Although the fundamental principle governing western law is that the law is blind and should be applied regardless of the status of the perpetrator or the victim, the VAWA, from its inception, has sought to redistribute power and resources solely to female victims, based on the premise that violence is primarily caused by institutionalized sexism.

As Charlotte Hays noted last Tuesday, “The problem with VAWA is that it makes women not just victims of crime, but special victims, with special rights and special standards of what is right and wrong.” As a result, the law has threatened the basic principles of due process.

The current reauthorization, with its effort to expand the number of victim groups benefiting from the law, is no exception to this rule.

While it is true that throughout U.S. history particular sectors of society, including women, have experienced genuine inequality and injustice, this has not occurred because the principles of the law are flawed, but because the law has been applied unjustly. Therefore, it logically follows that justice should be sought through a more consistent and objective application of the law.

Overturning the principles of law, by removing the blinders of justice based on the status of victims, inadvertently endangers the concept of justice for all people. For example, a recent Ms. Magazine Blog recounts the story of a physically abused gay man who was repeatedly turned away from domestic violence shelters because he was a man. In response to this story, however, the author does not call for a more equitable application of the law to all victims of violence; rather, she simply demands more services for LGBTQ people.

If anything, the continual effort to extend the VAWA to new victim groups highlights the fact that violence plagues all sectors of society. Therefore, rather than carving out special protections for an ever expanding base of victim groups, the VAWA should be rewritten to combat domestic and sexual violence more generally and objectively.

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