VAWA’s major flaw: Increased incarceration of women of color

The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first passed in 1994, became a flashpoint in “the war against women” in 2012 when Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to pass an updated bill. They objected to extending coverage to immigrant women, Native women assaulted on tribal lands by non-Native men, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities.

Including these communities that experience domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in the new law shows heightened awareness by anti-violence advocates of these usually marginalized groups since the law was reauthorized in 2005. In that regard the updated law appeared to be progressive.

In fact, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, the rate of nonfatal intimate-partner violence dropped 64 percent between 1994 and 2010. That’s impressive since its statistics show that one in five women will be raped and one in four women will experience severe physical violence in her lifetime. Yet, one of the law’s glaring drawbacks is that adequate resources for protective services were not allocated. While money was being lavished on the Pentagon, the banks and the corporations, more than 170,000 women who requested emergency shelter in 2011 had to be turned away.

After the media exposed this glaring example of the Republicans’ anti-woman agenda, the House passed the revised bill 286 to 138 on Feb. 28, with 60 Republicans voting for it. Did those politicians suddenly see the light and become defenders of women’s rights?

Can a leopard change its spots?

The most probable explanation — other than blatant opportunism to curry favor with women voters — is that those politicians, who generally have a law-and-order approach to dealing with social problems, applauded the fact that the VAWA expands the state’s role to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate attackers, thus reinforcing the power of the police, prosecutors and courts.

But that’s precisely what critics of the law, predominantly women of color, ­object to.

Why VAWA penalizes women of color

One source of criticism was posted on the Internet under the title, “VAWA — A Black Feminist Dissent.” (, Dec. 12) The writer points out that the history of violence against women in this country “is tied to devastating legacies of racial violence.” She notes that the first VAWA was initiated in 1994 as part of the Crime Bill Act, which Angela Davis has exposed as leading to increased incarceration of women.

“This was especially true for Black and Latina women, who, by 2005, were 200 percent and 69 percent (respectively) more likely than white women to be incarcerated,” the writer observed. “Anti-violence feminists’ advocacy for criminalization-based strategies” was “a catastrophe for many survivors of color.”

African-American women’s studies scholar, Beth E. Richie, in her 2012 book, “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation,” substantiated that: “Instead of benefiting from advances in state protection when they are in danger, Black women from low-income communities become isolated from mainstream services, blamed for the abuse they experience, and then sanctioned by state agencies for the harm they endured.”

The 1974 case of Joanne Little is a classic example. Little was a young African-American woman who stabbed a white prison guard while he was attempting to rape her in the Beaufort County Jail in Washington, N.C. She was charged with first-degree murder that carried the death penalty. After a huge national campaign by civil rights, feminist, progressive and anti-death penalty movements affirmed her right to self-defense, she was exonerated. Women in Workers World Party worked long and hard on her case.

At the same time that thousands of anonymous African-American women have been sexually attacked and then jailed for defending themselves, a few cases defied the media whiteout. In 2012, for example, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years after she shot at the ceiling in her garage as a self-defense warning when her abusive husband, defying an order of protection, threatened to kill her.

The case of transwoman CeCe McDonald, who is currently in jail for defending herself during a violent transphobic attack by a group of racist whites, has been written about extensively in WW by lesbian author and activist, Leslie Feinberg. Another case covered in WW is that of the New Jersey 7, a group of African-American lesbians who were convicted after defending themselves from a street attack in 2006.

Anti-violence strategy must defend all women

“I wish that feminist advocates would promote a politics grounded in racial justice that address the profound structural conditions that help drive domestic and sexual violence for many of us,” wrote computerblu. She stressed the need for integrating such an approach “into social movements that support Native sovereignty, (im)migrant justice and queer liberation” and that “isn’t beholden to the state at all.”

During a Feb. 28 In These Times interview (“VAWA: A Victory for Women — But Which Women?”), Richie stated that any discussion about ending violence against women must not “rely solely on the state.” She noted, “Mandatory arrest laws, in particular, have disproportionately impacted women for whom the legal system is not a supportive, or even a fair, system. … Under these policies, when police arrive on the scene of an altercation and cannot discern the primary aggressor, both parties are arrested.” That accounts for the huge increase in women of color imprisoned for “crimes” related to domestic violence.

To end violence against women, Richie advocated for “serious attention to women’s reproductive choices, a fair economy, and a decentering of hetero-patriarchy.”

In other words, for an end to capitalist society — and its divide-and-conquer, racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ political agenda. It’s an oppressive economic system that rewards the 1% and represses the 99%. Male privilege ultimately benefits only the 1% of all men. Workers World couldn’t agree more.

Meanwhile, there is a suspiciously misogynous Catch 22 about the political timing of VAWA’s passage.Because it was passed on Feb. 28, the day before the sequester went into effect, VAWA’s $660 million annual funding is now subject to drastic cuts. A March 1 article in the Washington Post speculated that up to 200,000 women who are subject to domestic violence could lose access to shelters, protective orders, crisis intervention, counseling and other vital services. Only the 1% benefits.

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