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Sen. Smith calls Senate inaction on Violence Against Women Act 'unacceptable'

Sen. Tina Smith

ST PAUL — More than seven months after the U.S. House voted to reauthorize a decades-old law aimed at protecting women from violence, the Minnesota's Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith called it "unacceptable" that the Senate has not taken it up.

At a Friday, Nov. 15, news conference alongside Minnesota's Democratic Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and activists, Smith pointed the finger at Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not putting the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 up for a vote in the Senate.

"My fear is that the message that women get (...) is that the crimes of violence committed against them, their inability to live free of violence, doesn’t matter," Smith told reporters in Minnesota's state Capitol. "That is wrong. It is heartbreaking and we have to put a stop to it."

Smith joined all 46 of her Democratic Senate colleagues on Wednesday in reintroducing a Senate version of the bill "in order to put pressure on (Senate leadership) and to move forward."

The Violence Against Women's Act (VAWA) establishes protections to prevent violence against women, or support after it happens, whether it's sexual, domestic or workplace violence. Senate Democrats' latest version, led by California's Democratic U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, would reauthorize the bill through 2024. VAWA was first passed in 1994.

Though VAWA establishes protections for women of all races, Friday's news conference centered around violence against Native American women, who experience violence at rates higher than any other race, per the National Congress of American Indians.

According to the Indian Law Resource Center, over 80% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than half have survived sexual violence.

Flanagan, who is a citizen of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, said Friday that the "alarmingly high rates" of violence against Native women constitute a "crisis."

“Too often, Native women are, at best, invisible, and at worst, we are disposable,” Flanagan said. “This must change.”

Reauthorizing VAWA is a step toward changing the trend, Flanagan and the others said. The Senate version includes provisions to reaffirm tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of violence who victimize Native women on federally recognized tribal lands, and to improve tribes' coordination and crime data-sharing with non-Native law enforcement.

Patina Park, of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, is the president of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. She said tribal courts have history been seen as "infantile and incompetent," but empowering tribes with the teeth to address violence on their reservation land is important because they know best how to address it.

"Our governments, our justice, our courts, are millennia old. They are ancient. They have been here forever," Park said. "They should be respected, not looked down at because they’re not like others."

Park said passing VAWA "should be a no-brainer."

"Does anyone really want human beings to be abused and assaulted and to struggle?" she asked. "I would challenge anyone from any world view you have (...) to ask yourselves if those legislative acts really support how you see each other as human beings."

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