Last week, Congress passed a bill with bipartisan support and sent it to the president. Even though the bill essentially reauthorized a law that has been on the books for nearly 20 years, in this era of gridlock, despite a fair amount of Republican resistance, it was a noteworthy result because of its largely bipartisan support. President Obama will sign the bill on Thursday, once again enacting the law.
It was legislation that reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, a statute first championed by then-senator Joe Biden and originally signed into law in 1994. Since then, the law has been reauthorized twice, in 2000 and 2005, with overwhelming bipartisan support until the House Republicans let it expire at the end of last year.
One has to wonder why, when the evidence has been crystal-clear that the law has worked effectively, that it was ever allowed to expire. Since 1994, the rate of intimate partner violence has declined by 67 percent. From 1993 to 2007, the rate of intimate partner homicides of females decreased 35 percent and the rate of intimate partner homicides of males decreased 46 percent.
So, what made this reauthorization process different? Was it opposition to the added provisions that help eliminate the backlog of unprocessed rape kits to allow law enforcement officers the ability to apprehend and convict more rapists? Was it the added provisions requiring colleges to collect and disclose information about sexual assault and provide greater services to protect students against dating violence and stalking?
Neither is the answer; the opposition came from 168 Republicans including Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who joined 10 other GOP women in voting against the measure, and said: " I didn't like the way it was expanded to include other different groups."
Who might be those "other different groups"? One word: women.
The Senate added provisions to enhance protections for Native Americans, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and undocumented women who have been victims of domestic violence. Those are the women that Blackburn considers "other different groups" and therefore should not be afforded the same protections under the law.
The Justice Department reports that 1 in 3 Native American women is raped over their lifetime and that non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts, commit more than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations. The new provision included language to close this loophole allowing for the prosecution of these men while protecting their right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, almost half of bisexual women have been raped in their lifetimes and nearly 1 in 3 lesbians has experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner.
In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney lost the women's vote by 18 points, in part, by failing to connect with women on issues that matter to them most. Going forward, if the GOP ever hopes to bridge that gap, perhaps it should start by defining and treating all women equally as women and not "other different groups."
It is incumbent that our lawmakers work to protect all victims of domestic and dating violence and sexual assault, and not exclude those women who might not fit ones traditional definitions. Let's allow the reauthorization of this legislation to act as a guide for our country in continuing to be a cutting-edge proponent for women victim rights in the world.