When the law is not protection enough

A piece of wisdom from living in West Africa — when adapting to a new culture, it’s the women you want to pay attention to. No one is closer to the pulse of a village, town, or city than the people who spend 12 to 14 hours a day tending to crops, washing clothes, shopping and swapping news at the market, making meals for the family, and raising the children.

I learned a lot from my host sisters Mariama and Merro when I lived as a member of their household in The Gambia during 2011. They taught me the obvious, like washing clothes by hand and cooking Gambian dishes, but they also educated me about things you wouldn’t find in a guidebook.

Thanks to my sisters, I knew how to tie a wrap skirt, shell peanuts, haggle for the right price at a market, and correctly speak the local language. And I knew which places I could travel alone and where I would be better off as part of a group. In short, they protected me, a foreigner, from potential dangers in their country.

It worries me to think that, if Mariama and Merro moved to America, they would not be afforded the same protections under the law as me when it comes to violent crimes. The recently reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) fails to address the rights of three major groups in our country — LGBT women, Native Americans, and immigrants.

Since the original law’s passage in 1994, women in those three groups have largely seen their complaints ignored. The 2012 reauthorization sought to expand the law to give them certain legal protections.

A comprehensive version of VAWA passed in the Senate 68 to 31 on April 26. On May 16, the House passed their version, omitting those protections for Native American, LGBT, and immigrant survivors of domestic violence, rape, and other forms of assault.

As the House and Senate quarrel over which version will reach the president’s desk at the oval office, it’s important to consider the ramifications for everyone involved.

The case for immigrants

For those living in America without papers, the prospect of going to the police for help following an attack from an American citizen presents another level of trauma: Report your attacker, and run the risk of not being taken seriously and perhaps being deported; or remain silent and allow the perp to possibly rape or assault another person.

In more instances than not, the attacked women know or are in a relationship with the attacker. Nothing complicates violations of the law more than these relationships, especially when the victimizer may threaten her with deportation if she tries to get help.

The House version of VAWA insists that domestic abusers receive notification when their spouse or girlfriend decides to seek protection against them. This lack of confidentiality puts the woman in harm’s way and encourages current or future survivors not to see authority figures as protectors of their interests or person. The same figures who could guarantee my safety from a rapist or abusive boyfriend are not legally required to do the same for women who aren’t recognized as official American citizens.

Beyond this failure of law enforcement, immigrant women often miss the opportunity to seek counseling and medical attention because of the emotional response following an attack.

“There’s usually a feeling of shame that is felt by the women [I help]”, explained Cristina Perez, the director of outreach at Women Organized Against Rape. Perez has been counseling survivors of sexual assault at the Philadelphia-based organization for nearly 15 years.

A majority of the women she counsels are undocumented immigrants from Latin America, and many are in relationships with their rapist when they are raped. “So they feel, ‘I am guilty for what happened,”’ Perez said. “They believe they brought it on themselves, and they don’t seek counseling, so they don’t understand their feelings. They are angry, but they don’t want to understand that. They want to forget it.”

In 2000, Congress authorized the creation of the U-visa, which grants undocumented immigrants the legal status to live and work in the United States in exchange for their cooperation in the reporting and investigation of criminal offenders.

Parts of the reauthorized act severely restrict law enforcement and the rights of the survivor. Specifically, section 802 requires that the crime must be reported within 60 days of its occurrence, and that the case must be under active investigation or prosecution. This can be difficult for an already understaffed, overwhelmed police force.

To make matters worse, if a survivor provides any incorrect information (i.e., she identifies the wrong attacker, or provides the incorrect date of her attack) or botches any petitions she makes against her rapist during the course of the investigation, she may be subject to criminal prosecution. In other words, an already traumatized individual, who may have trouble remembering details of a horrendous event or who may struggle with an application for protection, could be arrested and charged for mistakes.

Other disadvantaged groups

Making the reauthorization of VAWA even more controversial is the removal of clauses that would acknowledge and prosecute the domestic and sexual assault of lesbians and Native American women. The version of the bill that passed in the Senate protected LGBT women from discrimination in instances of filing police reports and seeking support from domestic abuse shelters. The House version dropped this clause.

Meanwhile, in an effort to address the startling Justice Department statistic that one in three Native American women has been raped during her lifetime, the Senate bill also sought to expand the powers of tribal courts to allow for the prosecution of non-Native men who rape or abuse Native women. Like the LGBT anti-discrimination clause, the tribal court expansion was removed from the House’s version of the bill. Opponents of the clause deemed the expansion too far-reaching.

Violence against women is a human rights issue, not a political issue. Survivors of rape require a compassionate response from doctors, police investigators, lawyers, and those who are close to them. The omitted parties from the recently reauthorized VAWA are not only excluded from protections they are supposed to have, but they are being robbed of the chance to get violent criminals off the streets. Worst of all, the very people the law is supposed to protect could be subjected to further suffering and possible imprisonment, just for trying to exercise their right to due process.

As Republicans and Democrats discuss which version of the bill will progress to the White House, let us hope that this miscarriage of legislation will give birth to the largest coalition in history — one that blends supporters of gay rights, women’s rights, and immigration reform that grants protection to residents who were born overseas.

If I, an American woman, was able to feel safe in The Gambia, it should follow that anyone who wants to come to my home turf, either as a visitor or an eventual citizen, should feel safe from the moment they arrive.

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