Navajo leadership among those who hail reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The reauthorization by Congress of the Violence Against Women Act is receiving praise from those in Indian Country because it strengthens tribes to further address domestic violence and sexual violence.

The act was added to the $1.5 trillion spending bill to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed the bill last week.

President Joe Biden signed it on March 15 and highlighted VAWA in remarks during the signing event. The president worked on the law when he was a senator.

"The law has saved lives and that's helped women rebuild their lives and make children a heck of a lot safer," Biden said.

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Nicole Walker shares her story about sexual assault before participating in the Diné Sáanii for Justice march on Oct. 18, 2021 in Window Rock, Arizona.

He added, "today, with this bill, we reauthorize and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act. For example, we're doing more to help survivors in rural areas and in underserved communities. Tribal courts will now be able to exercise jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault and sex trafficking and we're providing more support for legal services and for law enforcement to get the training they need to help handle trauma that survivors are experiencing."

VAWA was first enacted in 1994 but lapsed three years ago over partisan disagreement. This latest renewal will have it in place through 2027.

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Overall, the law provides federal resources and technical support for programs that help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.

Among the provisions that center on Indian Country is the "tribal title."

This title further restores and extends tribal jurisdiction over offenders who commit domestic violence and related crimes and closes jurisdictional gaps left from the act's reauthorization in 2013, according to information released by Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office.

Several posters call attention to domestic violence on the Navajo Nation during an awareness walk about the issue on Oct. 18, 2021 in Window Rock, Arizona.

Murkowski, R-Alaska, was among the group of bipartisan senators who sponsored the reauthorization, which also enhances access by tribal law enforcement to national crime databases and permanently authorizes a pilot program under the Federal Bureau of Prisons to allow certain offenders convicted in tribal courts to be held in federal prisons.

"The reauthorization combats crimes by assisting domestic violence prevention, protecting survivors, and promoting safer tribal communities for women, children, and families," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said on March 14. "The reauthorization ensures that survivors in the Navajo Nation receive the resources they deserve. We thank the Biden-Harris administration for taking this step towards a shared goal to make our communities safer."

Nez and first lady Phefelia Nez were among the Navajo Nation leaders who advocated for reauthorizing VAWA during visits to Washington, D.C., according to the tribal president's office.

"The law allows survivors from all tribal communities to have more access to healing, justice, and restoration," Phefelia Nez said. "The reauthorization is a major victory for all of Indian Country, especially those who have long advocated and supported the act."

Participants move toward the Navajo Nation Council chamber in Window Rock, Arizona on Oct. 18, 2021 during an awareness walk about domestic violence on the Navajo Nation.

Also applauding the reauthorization was the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending violence against Native American women and children.

"The Violence Against Women Act is an important step forward in addressing jurisdictional gaps that leave Native women and children vulnerable," Lucy R. Simpson, the organization's executive director, said. "By strengthening and restoring tribal jurisdiction and providing necessary resources to tribal governments through VAWA, tribes will be better equipped to keep their communities safe and ensure justice for Native women."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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