On February 28, the House of Representative passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by a vote of 286 to 136. VAWA was then signed into law on March 7, marking a huge step forward for victims of domestic violence all over the country. This new legislation, which was initially drafted by then Senator Joe Biden in 1994 and enacted the same year, is more powerful because it both expands and creates federal programs that help victims of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is an issue among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Statistically, Asian and Pacific Islander women experience lower rates of sexual and domestic violence than women of other racial groups. However, this may not truly reflect reality, as this may actually be due to underreporting by Asian and Pacific Islander women experiencing domestic violence. One national study found that 12.8 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander women experienced physical assault at least once in their lifetime. However, community-based studies of Asian women, estimate a lifetime prevalence rate of 41%-61%. The Project AWARE (Asian Women Advocating Respect and Empowerment) study on types of domestic violence found that more than 81 percent of a representative sample of Asian women experienced some form of intimate partner violence in the past year, be that psychological or physical.
The Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence (API Institute) is a national resource center that deals with domestic violence within the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. It works to eliminate violence against women in these communities through research, policy advocacy and technical assistance and training.
The following is an interview with Chic Dabby, Director of the API Institute, in which she shares her views on the recent reauthorization of VAWA, and the work of the API Institute to combat domestic violence.
In your opinion, what does the recent passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) signify for the women's rights movement?
The women’s movement has successfully focused public and governmental attention on issues affecting and abrogating women’s rights – and, domestic violence is one of them. The first bill to address domestic violence, the Family Violence Prevention Services Act (FVPSA) was authorized in 1984 and continues to be the federal government’s only funding source directly dedicated to domestic violence shelters and services. A full decade later, the Violence Against Women Act was first passed in 1994; and both bills have been reauthorized subsequently. Such landmark legislation translates into federal and state support to prevent violence against women and other victims, and provide services for them, and are having an impact. As Vice President Biden (who, as Senator, authored VAWA in 1994) reminds us, domestic violence has gone down 60% between 1993 and 2010. The recent passage of VAWA signifies eventual bipartisan support for the bill’s new and vital protections for immigrant women, tribal women and the LGBTQ community – crafted by advocates and championed by both parties. The national mobilization this took reflects the strategic advantages of a unified women’s rights movement that represents the interests of multiple identity groups and communities.
Do you believe the new version of VAWA goes far enough to protect women against domestic violence?
Legislative remedies generally develop in response to identified trends and issues. For example, VAWA, expanded from protections for the crime of domestic violence to include sexual assault, stalking and dating violence because the data indicated that these were significant national trends. In the new version of VAWA, among many important provisions, three were critical – jurisdictional issues for Native women, unequivocal inclusion for LGBTQ individuals, and expanded protections for immigrant women. At the end of the day, legislative protection can only go so far; changing cultures and communities that devalue and oppress women is what prevents domestic violence.
What are some of the unique obstacles and challenges facing Asian domestic violence victims in the United States?
Trends like transnational abandonment, threats of deportation, forced marriage, and custody battles that deny battered mothers custody and even access to their children pose unique obstacles/challenges to Asian women. In addition, their immigration status is used by batterers as one of the tactics of domestic violence and coercive control – this includes documented women who fall out of status because their abusers do not take steps to regularize it; or the difficulty of implementing protections for Asian women with an H-4 dependent visa who become domestic violence victims. Inadequate language access, anti-immigrant policies, gender bias in family court, and racism pose system barriers.
What has your organization been able to achieve in terms of advancing the cause of Asian domestic violence victims?
The achievements of the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence include:  Increasing the provision of culturally relevant, trauma-informed services through training and technical assistance, in community-based-organizations and systems to address the unique dynamics and trends of domestic violence in Asian homes, through training and technical assistance.  Influencing systems change through research on critical issues such as domestic violence related homicides affecting Asian women and children to shape homicide prevention policies.  Addressing the unmet needs of sub-groups within a large, heterogeneous Asian population by working with national partners and community experts to develop materials such as the Islamic Marriage Contracts: A Resource Guide for Legal Professionals, Advocates, Imams & Communities.  Promoting language access for domestic and sexual violence victims with limited English proficiency.  Collaborating with multiple federal agencies to address violence against Asian women and girls by recommending interventions and policies on unique trends and issues that affect Asian victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence.
Do you believe the Asian American community has come a long way since the initial passage of VAWA in 1994?
Yes. In fact, a core group of mostly Asian advocates and attorneys in the San Francisco Bay Area crafted the immigrant battered women’s provisions in that first bill – evidence of Asian American leadership that has continued throughout subsequent reauthorizations. Domestic violence continues to be a central focus of activism in Asian communities – women and men have organized to counter the extent and depth of the problem, evidenced by approximately 120 programs in the country designed by Asian advocates. Cultural change in all communities will be a perpetual mission: Asian community-based-organizations are attempting to integrate the principles of gender equality into all types of projects, on the principle that domestic violence or gender parity is not just a women’s issue, only located in women’s programs. The pathways to divesting from gender violence and investing in gender democracy are daunting but Asian victims/survivors, activists and advocates continue to build and strengthen them.
Interviewed by Chic Dabby of the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, San Francisco, California