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 new threats are addressed.
Every five years, the act is re-authorized. That means Congress has an opportunity to improve this legislation. However, Congress missed the deadline in September and decided to allow more time to consider needed reform, giving itself until Dec. 7 to decide how to improve VAWA.
To start, members of Congress should 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.
It is hard to imagine, but the federal government just litigated its first case involving female genital mutilation in Michigan. It was charged that nine girls from three states had undergone the illegal procedure at a Livonia medical clinic. The doctor who performed the FGM procedures was charged, along with two doctors who managed the clinic.
In a shocking decision, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman threw out the mutilation and conspiracy charges against the defendants. He ruled the federal law that bans FGM in the United States was unconstitutional, because Congress doesn’t have the power to regulate this behavior. The judge considers it a local criminal activity that should be regulated by the states.
This ruling will most likely be appealed in the courts. It is also clear that Congress disagrees with this judge. Just last year, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that would increase the penalty for performing FGM in the United States. Obviously, Congress thought it had the right to regulate this behavior and wanted to make the punishment for it more severe.
In light of this recent and disturbing ruling, it is critical that funding is made available through VAWA for those organizations doing the important work of raising awareness about FGM among the medical community, educators, and community leaders. VAWA should also provide model legislation to those states that do not have laws currently against FGM. At the very least, every state should specifically outlaw FGM. Right now, only 27 do. That needs to change.
VAWA also directs hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to states and organizations that are supposed to help address these problems. Taxpayers should feel confident that their money is being spent efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, that has not been the case with VAWA.
The Department of Justice Inspector General reports have consistently found irregularities, misconduct, and abuse. One random audit found unallowable and unauthorized expenses in 21 of 22 grants. One recipient of a grant totaling $500,000 over four years was found to have misused approximately $200,000.
Any grant recipient found out of compliance should lose all federal funding. Congress needs to address the lack of transparency and accountability that has long been associated with VAWA funding. Anything less hurts those victims who are supposed to be helped by these efforts.
The clock is ticking. Democrats and Republicans should speak with one voice that violence against women — including female genital mutilation — is unacceptable and is taken seriously.