Women have fought too long to not be held responsible for the actions of their abusers; I cannot support legislation that would return us to the past.
April 8, 2021 | As published in USA Today
Thirty years ago, before the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became law, domestic violence was viewed as a behind-closed-doors, private matter between husband and wife. Victims were often told to just deal with it — weathering the emotional and physical impacts of abuse alone — sometimes even being blamed for causing the strife. Resources and services were scarce, and women had nowhere to turn.
Since its inception, VAWA has strengthened local, state, tribal, and federal responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Because of this important legislation, women now have places to turn for support.
Fortunately, Congress has continued to fund the VAWA programs year after year despite their “unauthorized” status because of folks like myself and others who recognize the need to ensure survivors are supported. But the fight over getting the bill reauthorized and modernized has become all too polarizing. My Democratic colleagues continue to read from the same script, year after year, attempting to hijack a bill for their own agenda on everything from gun control to sexual orientation. And admittedly some of my Republican colleagues have their own routine concerns with VAWA.
Negotiation is not an option
In March, the House of Representatives passed the mostly partisan Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2021. That bill has been sold by Democrats as a simple reauthorization of VAWA, but it is far from that. Just read the section of the bill on “Restorative Practice.” This practice shockingly funds programs that allow an abuser to negotiate with their victim in the name of “collectively seeking accountability from the accused.” While there might be decent intention behind this, it puts the responsibility of stopping abuse on the survivor.
Instead of going to jail, a wife-beater could sit across the table from their victim and discuss a settlement. Yes, you read that right; abuser and survivor in the same room, forced to negotiate. The bill states restorative practice would be "on a voluntary basis," but given the way a victim has suffered, it won't feel voluntary. Nothing about these crimes is voluntary.
While this approach might work for middle school conflicts or neighborly disputes about flowerbeds, it’s coercive, re-traumatizing, and could even be deadly when applied to survivors of domestic violence. Democrats want this radical approach to apply not just to survivors of domestic violence, but also sexual assault. This framework holds a victim responsible as an essentially equal partner in preventing future violence. This reminds me of how women were treated decades ago, when they were asked what they did to deserve it and this kind of social experimentation has no place in VAWA.
A web of abuse
As a survivor of both domestic violence and sexual assault, I’m appalled at the lack of understanding regarding the complexities of the relationships between survivor and abuser, especially a long term abuser. Untangling a web of abuse is a daunting task. The coercion and community pressure can be overwhelming. Under the Democrats’ bill, the victim would be responsible for publicly stating to her community whether her abuser should face consequences or not.
I am committed to reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. It’s why I introduced a modernized version last Congress and intend to do so again — one that holds predators accountable and supports survivors in all communities, rural and urban. I stand ready to negotiate with my friends across the aisle. But the reality of a 50-50 Senate is that Democrats need to be willing to find consensus.
I will work with anyone on a bipartisan bill that increases funding for needed programs and makes appropriate, and necessary, updates to the law. But ideas like restorative practice have no place in a bill called the Violence Against Women Act. Women have fought too long to not be held responsible for the actions of their abusers. I cannot support legislation that would return us to the past.
Joni Ernst, a Republican, is a combat veteran and the junior U.S. senator from Iowa.
As published in USA Today.