We Must Protect the Violence Against Women Act

There was a time when survivors of intimate partner violence were too ashamed and scared to tell anyone that their partner had physically or sexually assaulted them, or threatened and intimidated them. Thanks in large part to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), survivors are more supported when they come forward, and are thus more likely to come forward at all—but this law and the survivors it protects are now in jeopardy.

Molly Adams

Our newly elected president has indicated he will cut funding for VAWA as part of his plan to eliminate government “waste.” Not only is this proposed cut bad policy, but it is indicative of a much more disturbing trend: the normalization of violence against women.

Of all the women murdered in the United States, one-third are killed by an intimate partner, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  1,181 American women were murdered by their partners in 2005.  That’s three women per day.  According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 232,960 U.S. women were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That averages out to about 600 a day.

In our law clinic at the University of Arizona we represent intimate partner violence survivors to obtain protection orders against abusers. My students have witnessed firsthand how intimate partner violence manifests as a pattern of behavior to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Contrary to how intimate partner violence is often depicted in films and television, survivors do not provoke the abuse and are not masochists.

Survivors often make repeated attempts to leave violent relationships, but their abuser prevents them from leaving by through various control tactics, including increased violence. Other tactics include economic dependence, social isolation, and using children in common.  Often, abusers gradually isolate their victims from their friends and family and then make their victim feel like she is the crazy one for questioning the abuse. In addition, survivors are most at risk when they do decide to leave, and thus we should defer to the survivor’s judgment as to when is the right time to take that risk.

My students have also seen how many are quick to dismiss the severity of the abuse, or to blame the victim for being “unreasonable” or “hysterical.”

We recently assisted a client in negotiating a system for exchanging custody of her daughter that would not require her to interact with her ex-husband. He raped her in her sleep throughout their marriage, and seeing him triggers her post-traumatic stress disorder such that she has nightmares and headaches. The husband’s lawyer peppered the negotiations with statements such as “I don’t know what all the drama is about”.

One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.

Intimate partner violence is not an isolated incident or an anomaly that only touches a minority of our population.  This is happening to our brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, and also our fathers and mothers.  If we want incidents of intimate partner violence to decrease, we have to stop disregarding women’s rights and safety.

One important step is to challenge victim-blaming and attempts to normalize violence against women in your every-day life. When someone you know questions why a domestic violence survivor does not leave the relationship, or did not leave sooner, speak up–and speak up effectively. Try approaching him or her from a place of empathy.

Express some understanding for why they may view the situation that way, but then use the moment as an opportunity to increase their understanding of what domestic violence survivors go through. We may not achieve change shift in our social norms overnight, but if we chip away at this problem we can ensure that this much-needed shift happens one day.  It will take many of these conversations, probably several conversations with each person, including ourselves.

We also must demand that our representatives take a stand against the normalization of violence against women.  To be sure, there are those who may allege violence when none occurred, but just as we do not let such outliers deter us from investigating property theft, we should not let it stop us from investigating and addressing intimate partner violence.  Call or address your representative now about how defunding the violence against women act betrays half of our population.


Negar Katirai is an Assistant Clinical Professor and the Director of the Community Law Group at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law. She is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.