The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was supposed to be reauthorized by Sept. 30, 2018. But with the election looming, Congress announced last week that the law would be extended through Dec. 7 under a stopgap-spending bill. Members of both political parties seem more comfortable with debating the serious, but politically sensitive, issues surrounding VAWA after the election.
Yet reauthorizing VAWA shouldn’t be a heavy-lift politically. Twenty-four years ago, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with bipartisan support. There were (and remain) concerns about federal involvement in law enforcement matters, but broad agreement exists that our society needs to do more to prevent and respond to violence against women, to ensure those who abuse and assault women are held accountable, and that those trying to escape violent situations receive assistance.
Today, rather than questioning if VAWA is a proper use of federal authority, Republicans focused on ensuring that the money allocated to VAWA actually is used as intended: to help victims and prevention efforts, rather than to advance unrelated political agendas.
Democrats should be concerned about waste and fraud in VAWA too. If their goal is to help women and victims, then they should also want funds used efficiently and for grantees to be held accountable for results.
Unfortunately, VAWA’s record on this measure is poor. The Department of Justice Inspector General reports have consistently found irregularities, misconduct, fraud, and abuse within the Office on Violence Against Women, which was created to administer grant assistance and provide technical expertise on these issues.
It has awarded over $7 billion in grants. That is a significant amount of taxpayer money. One random audit found unallowable and unauthorized expenses in 21 of 22 grants. One recipient of a grant totally $500,000 over four years was found to have misused approximately $200,000 . In 2010, the Inspector General’s report found that 39 of 76 tribal government applications were miscalculated and there were weaknesses found in the methods used to screen reviewers for conflicts of interest.
Democrats and Republicans should agree this isn’t acceptable. As a part of reauthorizing VAWA, Congress should ensure greater transparency and require that any grant recipient found out of compliance lose all federal funding. Anything less is to short-change taxpayers and the victims that are supposed to be helped by these efforts.
Members of Congress should also update VAWA so that it responds to current threats. For example, VAWA should include efforts to prevent female genital mutilation (FGM), the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia for non-medical reasons, as defined by the World Health Organization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. are at risk of or have undergone the procedure.
In fact, the federal government is currently litigating its first case involving female genital mutilation in Michigan where it is charged that nine girls from three states have undergone the illegal procedure at a Livonia medical clinic. The doctor who performed the FGM procedures has been charged, along with two doctors who managed the clinic.
Clearly this is gender-based violence at its worst. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that would increase the penalty for performing female genital mutilation (FGM) in the United States. This effort should be included in the VAWA reauthorization and the funding made available through VAWA ought to be made eligible for those organizations doing the important work of raising awareness about FGM among the medical community, educators, and community leaders and making it clear that this practice will not be tolerated in the United States.
When reauthorizing VAWA, Democrats and Republicans should speak with one voice that violence against women — including female genital mutilation — is unacceptable; and that Congress is committed to ensuring that taxpayer dollars allocated under the name of helping women won’t be wasted, but will be put to their best use. That shouldn’t be a stance that has to wait until after election day.