October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But really every month is domestic violence awareness month and sexual assault awareness month to those who have had to endure abuse and violence. These past few weeks have shown in stark, real, and devastating terms the world that women live in. Lately it seems like each tiny step of progress made is accompanied with two steps back. And here’s the thing - we cannot afford to go back in time. Even with the #metoo movement and the disaster that took place in the Senate last week, the lack of urgency in Congress to take up legislation that addresses sexual assault, gender-based violence, and domestic violence is deeply negligent.
Take, for example, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). First passed in 1994, VAWA was enacted to ensure protection against domestic and sexual violence and abuse. It established a federal framework to coordinate federal and community-based responses for victims of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. With each new authorization of VAWA, we have worked to make it more comprehensive and inclusive, resulting in expanded protections for Native Americans and the LGBTQ community in the 2013 reauthorization.
The current reauthorization has received very little attention in Congress. Rep.Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a reauthorization proposal this July and there is no companion bill in the Senate. This means a bill that was set to expire this year, and last passed in 2013, has not been considered by either body of Congress. While VAWA did expire on the 30th of September, Congress passed a meager 3-month extension in the recently passed Continuing Resolution - kicking the can down the road for another few months and failing to adequately address these critical issues.
It’s not just the lack of will to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Congress has yet to even address legislation to deal with the internal sexual harassment issues which have proven to be prevalent within their own halls.
At the same time the Administration is taking steps to make investigating sexual assault in education settings more onerous - taking steps that will, as many advocates fear, have a chilling effect on the reporting and investigation of sexual assault. The Department of Education recently released proposed rules to allow changes relating to the standards of investigation and evidence of sexual assault reporting. The New York Times reports that according to the department's own analysis of the proposal there would be a 39 percent decline in sexual assault investigations. Efforts should be made to address the hurdles that face those reporting sexual assault, the skepticism, doubt and scrutiny they face - not policies that make reporting and investigating more difficult.
It doesn’t end there - the Department of Justice has also issued new guidance stating domestic abuse is no longer grounds for granting asylum. A great number of the women who seek asylum in the United States do so because of fear of sexual assault and domestic abuse, so this change in policy has serious repercussions.
This is a sobering list - and could have included myriad more examples. It shows we’ve got a lot of work ahead. As people of faith, we need to be right there in the work of breaking the silence and taking action to stop the violence. The UCC has made several proclamations and resolutions relating to violence against women saying that, “A God whose creation is called good and who promises abundance of life intends that persons live together free from the fear and the suffering of physical and sexual abuse.” Many UCC congregations are making important strides in supporting women, listening to survivors and advocating for changes that strengthen protections for women and those affected by gender-based violence and sexual assault.
Your community can participate in the Speak Out Sabbath, which is October 12-14. The We Will Speak Out campaign has compiled resources to support clergy in speaking out against sexual and gender-based violence. Worship resources, sermon starters, litanies, and children's resources are available.
You can also continue the work of speaking to members of Congress as well as those running for Congress, asking what actions they will take to support not just the Violence Against Women Act, but other policies that lift up survivors and bring their experiences into the light.
Isn’t that what our faith is all about - seeing suffering and working to address it?
There is important work to be done here. Let’s get started.
Katie Adams is the United Church of Christ's Policy Advocate for Domestic Issues.