Tomorrow will be the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). According to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), VAWA was created back in 1994 to address violent crime, particularly against women. Its method of addressing violence against women was twofold: (1) enhanced investigations and prosecutions of sex offenses, and (2) provided a number of grant programs to address the issue of violence of women (CRS, 2014, p. 2). With a name like the Violence Against Women Act, one would have to be sadistic to believe violence against women is a good thing. Sexual assault, rape, violence, and murder are all acts against humanity that are decidedly against libertarian principles, i.e., it violates the nonagression axiom. As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) points out, domestic violence even has long-term effects that surpass the period of the abuse. So how can anybody against VAWA and the noble cause of fighting domestic violence? Its goal is to reduce, or even eliminate, violent crimes against women. However, just because a piece of legislation has a name such as the Violence Against Women Act doesn't mean it's a form of "truth in advertisement." The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, has the word "affordable" in it, but the ACA has hardly made health care more affordable. What about VAWA? Does it properly target violence against women, or is VAWA just another government initiative with good intentions, but lousy results?
Before delving in, I think it's always worth it to mention the price tag of any government initiative. VAWA is a program that costs the taxpayers $412.5M per annum (the CBO puts the estimated costs at a higher number). In comparison to the $3.45T (FY 2013) budget, the cost of this program is relatively minute (i.e., about a ten-thousandth of the federal budget). Ways to make more efficient programming and curb waste is constantly at the forefront of my mind, but it's not a huge cost driver of federal-level debt, so I'll leave that one alone for now. I'll spend more of my focus on how VAWA does or could affect violence against women.
How good of a job has VAWA done in terms of reducing violence against women? From 1993 to 2010, we see a 64 percent decrease in intimate partner violence, which is great. The issue here is that the rates that criminal acts were decreasing in the early 1990's. How much can we honestly attribute to VAWA and how much can we attribute to the overall decrease in criminal behavior? Correlation is not the same thing as causation, which is something the Government Accountability Office had a problem with VAWA back in 2002 because no one conducted rigorous, experimental evaluation of VAWA's effectiveness. Unsurprisingly, this evaluation still has not been conducted, which means there is no actual evidence that VAWA was responsible for the domestic violence decreases. If anything, it seems that VAWA has had no unique effect on domestic violence rates (Cho and Wilke, 2010).
Looking at the CRS report, VAWA puts too heavy of a focus on law enforcement, thereby diminishing the complexity of domestic violence. Considering that VAWA was created during the end of the "tough on crime" heyday, it should be no surprise that a majority of VAWA funds go to prosecuting and other expenditures related to law enforcement. At the very least, VAWA funds should de-emphasize law enforcement and focus more on prevention, job and vocational training, finding a way to leave the abuser, or addressing the underfunded shelters. Additionally, when discussing problem-solving in a public policy context, we have to ask ourselves what are the root causes [of domestic violence]. The CDC provides an extensive list of over thirty causes of intimate partner violence, ranging from unemployment to depression to belief in strict gender roles to anger issues to poverty to substance abuse. Since the issue of intimate partner violence is so complex and intertwined, we would have to look at a combination of mental health, poverty relief, health care, education, and economic policy to address the issues. And even in the improbability that we can craft a policy to address all those issues, we cannot succumb to Vice President Biden's recent naïveté of thinking the government can stop domestic violence with government policy.
I additionally worry about unintended consequences of VAWA, aside from less funding going to directly address the root causes. One is that of mandatory arrest laws. In addition to doing away with "innocent until proven guilty," mandatory arrest laws increase arrest rates. This might seem like a good idea but what happens is that the woman worries that her husband gets thrown in jail. Since she doesn't want her partner getting thrown in jail, it leads to either retracted accusations or the more common occurrence of reporting domestic abuse less. As a result, intimate partner homicide increases (Iyengar, 2007).
It is also unfortunate how these laws depict men and women as narrow, inaccurate gender stereotypes. "Men are sex-crazed abusers. Women are victims." This mentality is not good for either gender. While there are some general differences between the genders, assuming that men are always the assailant in a domestic abuse case is simply not true. For starters, let's realize that nearly one in four men are victims of sexual violence in their lifetime. While women are statistically more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse, it is not as if men never are victims. Women can victimize, as well, and there are numerous instances in which the domestic violence is reciprocal (e.g., Whitaker et al., 2006). Take a look at this 2010 report by the CDC (particularly Chapter 4), and I can tell you that the number of male victims (CDC, 2010, Table 4.2) in a domestic abuse case is more numerous that one would have thought. 31 million males: that is nothing to scoff at, especially when that is approximately 28.5 percent of the male population. These numbers are most probably underestimates because individuals underreport domestic violence. If women are prone to underreporting because of the shame, think of how much more men are going to underreport domestic violence when it has the potential to emasculate them in a culture of hypemasculinity.
I am not to here diminish what female victims endure. I can only imagine what a female victim who goes through when she is victimized. However, we also need to recognize that there are also a sizeable amount of male victims. Not only is VAWA a Title IX violation, but it an assault on the idea of equal treatment under the law. We should not have laws that say that violence against women is more heinous than violence against men. A victim of a crime is a victim, regardless of gender.
In summation, I would suggest the following reform for VAWA. De-emphasize the "tough on crime" aspect. Put more emphasis on domestic shelters, as well as addressing root causes. Mitigate some of the fraud issues. Conduct effective evaluation that can determine VAWA efficacy. Create a societal climate in which both male and female victims feel that they can talk about their abuse and prevent future violence. Finally, and most importantly, make the law gender-neutral. If we are going to live in a pluralistic society where we emphasize that our similarities are more important than our differences, we need to create laws that help both men and women.