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In domestic violence bill, long-awaited victory for women's groups

More than a year after the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), President Obama heads to the Department of Interior today to sign into law its reauthorization, signaling a long-awaited victory for advocates on behalf of women, domestic violence victims, and American Indians who were for months stymied in their efforts to get the bill signed into law.

The legislation, which aims to protect the victims of domestic violence, was originally passed in 1994 as part of a larger crime bill, and has been reauthorized twice since then. Democrats' efforts to renew the bill in 2011 failed amid Republican concerns about some of its expanded protections, however, and no similar legislation has made it through both the House and Senate until late last month.

"This is hugely important," said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in an interview with "This piece of legislation has just been so core and foundational to the sustainability and the health of the well-being of the women we work with."

Under the new law, VAWA will - as in its previous incarnations- provide a host of services for domestic violence victims across the country, from legal aid to emergency and transitional shelter to various counseling and recovery services. It also offers new protections for gay, lesbian and transgender couples, provides thousands of visas for undocumented immigrants who have been victims of abuse, and provides new authority for Native American courts to prosecute non-Native American abusers.

"The Violence Against Women Act has dramatically reduced the lethality of domestic violence in this country; has dramatically improved reporting across the country of sexual assault, and domestic violence, and dating violence, and stalking; has dramatically improved the services available to survivors of this violence; and has dramatically improved the ability to prosecute and imprison offenders," said Terry O'Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). "That's just fact."

Unappealing though it might be, optics-wise, for a lawmaker to vote against a bill called the "Violence Against Women Act," the legislation appeared to be on shaky ground as recently as a few weeks ago: Among Republicans, there were particular concerns about the provision that would enable the prosecution in tribal courts of attackers who are not of American Indian descent, arguing that that it would expand the reach of tribal court power.

While resistance to that and other expansions of the bill was sufficient to stall its progress in Congress last year, however, Republicans were unsuccessful in their efforts to significantly weaken them this time around, and the complaint about Native American judicial jurisdiction was ultimately overruled even in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. The Senate bill ultimately passed, to cheers, with broad bipartisan support - just minutes after the chamber voted overwhelmingly to reject a scaled-back, GOP-penned bill.

"I think there are enough Republicans in the House who were ready to defy [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor," said NOW's O'Neill. She also speculated that Senate Republicans might have urged House leadership to allow a vote on the bill as part of an effort to "repair the Republican brand when it comes to women."

According to N. Bruce Duthu, a professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College, the provision that so irked Cantor and others is as big a deal as Republicans made it out to be.

"For the first time in the [post-1970s] modern era, the Congress is substantially altering the jurisdictional framework - they are recognizing a power that Indians have over non-Native people," he said. "That is so significant in terms of looking at the scope of tribal power."

Republicans may not like it, he said, but Native American populations have something to be excited about: Not only is it a recognition of the Native American tribes and court systems as "capable of producing just results," but it will serve a population known to be frequent targets of violent domestic and sexual abuse by non-Native American men.

"It's a huge victory for tribes," he said.

Of course, advocates didn't get everything they'd hoped for: O'Neill says advocates accepted a compromise with scaled back funding levels and consolidates programs. She also argues it's overly difficult for immigrant women to independently seek legal immigration status in order to prosecute their abusers, and that there should be more visas authorized for those purposes.

And while she's "skeptical" that VAWA's success signals a real sea change among Republicans on behalf of women's rights, she was ready to accept this particular achievement.

"I'll take this victory," she said.

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