Women in Indian Country Have Been Heard
March 7 was a momentous day -- President Obama was finally able to sign the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
In the two decades since VAWA passed both houses of Congress with strong, bipartisan votes, incidents of domestic violence have fallen by 53 percent. Women of all backgrounds need the protections this crucial law provides and it was a shame that it expired last year due to inaction by House Republicans. After a hard-fought road with House Republican leaders and after a year of waiting, the House approved the Senate’s version of the law.
Since it was first enacted in 1996, VAWA has been proven to work. It helps law enforcement improve strategies to prosecute violent crimes against women and it provides legal assistance to victims of violence. It also funds shelters that allow women to escape their abusers and it safeguards youth who experience dating violence or stalking.
For too long, however, the law did not extend protections to all women in America and certain protections were not afforded to members of Indian tribes. Loopholes in federal law previously allowed non-Indians who live or work on Indian reservations and who commit acts of domestic violence to go unpunished. Tribal courts lacked the power to convict non-Indians of these crimes. This disparity left victims in tribal communities at a gross disadvantage because they could not seek justice through their own courts.
I learned of one particular tragedy which conveys the gravity of the issue in stark terms. Diane Millich lived with her non-Indian husband on the Southern Ute reservation in southern Colorado. Her husband viciously beat her, however, neither tribal police nor local county officials had the legal authority to respond to her pleas for help. It is a tragedy that this man was arrested only after he went to Diane’s workplace with a gun and opened fire on her and her co-workers. After the shooting, law enforcement had to use a tape measure to determine whether this crime took place on Indian lands or not in order to decide who had jurisdiction.
The problem is real. Domestic violence is an epidemic in Indian Country and the rate of violence against tribal women far exceeds the national average. I am pleased that provisions in the newly reauthorized VAWA now grant concurrent tribal criminal jurisdiction allowing tribes to prosecute and punish criminals who commit acts of violence or assault against women in Indian country. These measures partially restore criminal jurisdiction to tribes which they had until the 1970s and they strengthen Federal assault statutes. Tribes will finally have legal tools to take action against all perpetrators of domestic violence, on their lands.
Wanda Batchelor, the first tribal Chairwoman of the Washoe Tribe of California & Nevada, describes how women leaders like herself banded together with the National Task Force to achieve progress for women across the country. She describes the network of advocates in Indian Country as a “sisterhood.” I heard loud and clear from these individuals in my home state of Nevada and across the country that VAWA needs to work for tribes. My colleagues in the Senate acted on that common-sense charge and we took swift action to ensure VAWA was re-codified with these new provisions.
For nearly a year, however, the House Republican leadership used procedural gimmicks and stall tactics to block the reauthorization of VAWA. The numbers are clear- every year, more than 1,000 women are killed by domestic abusers and every day another three women will die at the hands of their abusers. Inaction for the sake of partisan brinksmanship is a heavy risk to take, and I was confounded that House Republicans failed to understand what was at stake for women, children, and families.
My Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle believe firmly that violence against women is an atrocity and its remediation should never be made into political theater. In that spirit, at the beginning of the new Congress, the Senate again voted to reauthorize VAWA with strong bi-partisan support. Only then, after a second vote in the Senate, did House Republican leadership heed the many women who had been abused and disenfranchised and decide to pass the Senate’s version of the law.
This legislation exemplifies American values- respect and justice for all. These values transcend the American constitution and are shared by Tribal nations. When President Obama signed VAWA into law he did so in the presence of women from tribes across the country. Along with the millions of women who called for change and reform, the “sisterhood” of voices in Indian Country had been heard.
Millions of lives will be made better because of VAWA and I will continue to stand strong for tribes to ensure they are afforded equal protections under the law.
Senator Harry M. Reid is the senior United States Senator from Nevada and the current Senate Majority Leader.