Turning “Ifs” into “Whens”: College Students Like Me Need Reauthorization of a Full VAWA

By Dana Bolger, Outreach Intern, National Women’s Law Center
Cross-Posted from Womenstake

I dream of a day when men on college campuses no longer rape with impunity.

If that day comes, my safety and well-being will be valued more than my laptop’s. Students found responsible for sexual assault will receive more than slaps on the wrist.

If that day comes, the rape of an intoxicated woman, or a girlfriend, or an ex-girlfriend, or a man, will finally be considered “real” rape. There will be no such thing as “gray rape” or “acquaintance rape” or “date rape.” It will all be called by its proper name, the only name: Rape.

If that day comes, victims will no longer be blamed for the crime another person perpetrated against them. Faculty and students will be taught to recognize the signs of dating violence and domestic abuse. The officials who adjudicate disciplinary decisions will receive training appropriate to understand the complex psychology behind the cycle of abuse, rather than being told — as one disciplinary committee member was at my college — that “it’s pretty much common sense anyway.”

The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has the potential to begin a journey on which each “if” will turn into a “when.”

But right now, the VAWA bill is languishing in Congress, the surprising target of an effort to turn the issue of violence against women — a problem that everyone should agree merits action — into a partisan battle. On Tuesday the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women rallied on Capitol Hill in a renewed effort to push the reauthorization bill through Congress before the end of the summer.

There are currently two versions of the VAWA bill: the Senate version, which champions protections for all survivors; and the House version, which does not. The House bill’s failure to provide important protections for LGBT, Native American, and immigrant victims has been widely criticized—and rightly so. But many commenters have neglected to note the absence of vital provisions for another group entirely: victims of abuse on college campuses.

Studies show that 1 in 5 women will become victims of sexual assault during their time in college, and nearly 1 in 3 college women have been in abusive dating relationships. Often, victims drop out of college, while their attackers face little or no punishment and go on to graduate.

The Senate version of VAWA recognizes the prevalence and destructiveness of sexual assault and dating violence on college campuses. It offers substantial protections for survivors by requiring colleges to:

  • report statistics on incidents of dating violence, domestic abuse and stalking
  • establish clear, prompt and equitable procedures for on-campus disciplinary action conducted by officials who receive annual training on issues related to dating violence, sexual assault and stalking
  • ensure both the victim and the accused the right to have another person present at disciplinary proceedings
  • promote ongoing prevention programs — including bystander training — to educate students and faculty on how to recognize and prevent dating violence

The House version omits these provisions entirely. In doing so, it does little to help survivors like me, whose lives have been forever altered by rape and dating violence, and whose educational opportunities have been unnecessarily hindered because of it.

The decision to stand up for all victims of domestic abuse, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking — whether they be lesbian or Native American, immigrants or college students — should not be a difficult one.

And my dream of accountability, responsiveness, and justice need not be so far from reality. We may not be able to stop rapists from raping, but it is entirely possible to push schools to meet their obligations to take violence against women seriously and start supporting their students through it.

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