The Violence Against Women Act Isn’t Enough to Protect Women

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
In March, Angelina Jolie sat down with The Today Show to speak about her work in getting The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorized. Propelled by her own recent child custody battle with her ex-husband Brad Pitt where she’s alleged the actor abused her and their children, the actress and UN Ambassador spent months vigorously lobbying alongside anti-abuse activists like Ruth Glenn in favor of the law, which protects women and children abused in the home, after it had lapsed in 2019. “When somebody harms a child – if it’s a stranger – the way the law looks at it, the way the law responds, is quite strong,” Jolie said. “When it’s someone within a family, within a home, it is responded to less.” 
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Jolie is speaking to the same anxiety that abuse victims advocates organized in support of the initial incarnation of VAWA had. In a hearing in December of 1990, then Senator Joe Biden invited abuse victims to give testimony about the abuse they’ve experienced within the home and to show their support for the Biden-sponsored VAWA. “Battered women need to be taken seriously,” one of the women giving testimony said. “Proper police response can prevent what happened to me from happening to someone else.” 
Before VAWA passed nearly 30 years ago, women and children had little to no legal recourse to protect themselves against domestic violence. Abusive acts such as marital rape weren’t recognized as illegal throughout the country. Culturally, people were still struggling to see domestic violence as a systemic problem worth addressing through policy and not just a martial or familial issue meant to be kept inside the confines of the household. But the legacy of VAWA is complicated.

The question should be whether the freedom abuse victims need can ever truly be given to them by carceral institutions.

Despite its seemingly good intentions, and the intentions of those working to bring it back, the act’s reauthorization actually harms the women it claims to be protecting — especially Black and brown women. In an essay for The Jacobin, writer Victoria Law details a strain of feminism coined “carceral feminism” which advocates for policies that will lead to further incarceration, policing, and surveillance and how that will only leave victims of interpersonal violence even more vulnerable to abuse. In her assessment of VAWA, Law notes the rise in dual arrests – a repercussion of the section of VAWA that requires compulsory arrests of accused abusers and even victims who are falsely accused by their abusers. Compulsory arrest was a measure intended to assure that anyone accused of abuse was immediately taken into custody, but as a result, abusers would lie and say that their victims were also abusing them/were the real abusers so in many cases, both parties would be taken into custody.
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Survived and Punished, an organization that emerged after the incarceration of Marissa Alexander – a Black woman who was imprisoned after shooting a warning shot that didn’t hit anyone to scare her abusive husband – mobilizes around the idea that carceral systems only ensnare victims into another cycle of abuse. On their website, Survived and Punished cites an ACLU statistic that a daunting near 60 percent of the women who are incarcerated have a history of being abused.
In reexaminations of the advancement of mass incarceration in the late ’80s and ‘90s and the use of racist dog-whistling tactics to advance the state’s agendas such as the infamous Willie Horton ad, public discourse has yet to reckon with the ways the state will also align itself with righteous causes to expand the scope of its violence through carceralism and surveillance.
When VAWA was being considered, The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, or simply The Crime Bill of ‘94, was also being introduced as legislation. The Crime Bill of ‘94 has grown in controversy for its acceleration of mass incarceration rates within Black and brown communities. But the politicians at the time who were detractors of VAWA eventually found the bill to be appealing to their carcel sensibilities during the infamous Tough on Crime era of politics, which also leaned into overpolicing as a means of oppression masquerading as a solution to social issues. 

The solution to protecting Black and brown women against domestic violence cannot come from the same systems that oppress them. The story of women surviving abuse throughout history is often a story of average women – not the government – coming together to protect each other. 

And this is exactly what Biden is doing with VAWA. In the recently reauthorized version of VAWA, there’s a section that details how money will be reserved for “community-based restorative practice services,” a co-opt of language rooted in abolitionist practices, but these “services” are actually police-sponsored programs that co-opted the language of the radical anti-state solution to violence that stands in opposition to the bill (The Biden administration has yet to respond to Refinery29’s request for comment). 
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While 559 million dollars were distributed to victims' recovery services such as women’s shelters, education, education, and prevention measures, 1.5 billion dollars was set aside for policing. There’s also the recent example of the Stop Asian Hate act of last year which came in the wake of a wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans or the stalled George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that promised to deliver robust police reform after the uprisings of 2020. Both of these acts, however, along with VAWA were just fronts to pour more resources and capital into the violent institution which is policing. 
It’s also worth considering the ways in which Black and brown communities that have historically been disempowered by systemic oppression are often forced by desperation and lack of resources to look to the state for help in situations where violence becomes untenable for a person to handle on their own. Black women often find themselves in this precarious predicament where despite knowing the way the state often exasperates already volatile situations, they are left with no choice but to call the police when an abusive situation worsens. 
The policy lapses in providing protection for women and children and Jolie should be using her class and social status to fight for these vulnerable groups instead of justifying the state’s continued existence by giving them the veneer of progress. The question should be whether the freedom abuse victims need can ever truly be given to them by carceral institutions. Women’s shelters began as an effort of just a handful of women who took in over a dozen victims and survivors. The solution to protecting Black and brown women against domestic violence cannot come from the same systems that oppress them. The story of women surviving abuse throughout history is often a story of average women – not the government – coming together to protect each other. 
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please visit Survived And Punished for toolkits on safety planning and intimate partner violence and for resources to learn more about the criminalization of survivors of gender violence.

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