Excerpted From: Maryam Asenuga, Aren't I a Woman Deserving of Justice? Restructuring VAWA's Funding Structure to Create Racial and Gender Equity, 13 Columbia Journal of Race and Law 853 (June, 2023) (314 Footnotes) (Full Document)


In 2009, Tiffany MaryAmsengua.jpegWright, a Black girl was shot in the head and killed while she waited at a high school bus stop. At the time, Wright was eight months pregnant. The police told reporters that they believed the shooting arose from a domestic dispute between Wright and her adoptive brother, Royce Mitchell. Previously, Wright had accused Mitchell of raping her, which her foster mother reported to the Department of Social Services and the police before Wright's death. Despite the severity of these allegations and the Wright's age, investigators did not interview Wright until a month after the initial report. The police did not meet with Mitchell until the day of Wright's death, when Mitchell was arrested and charged with statutory rape and taking indecent liberties with a minor. At Mitchell's bond hearing, the defense attorney vilified Wright and diminished her credibility by focusing on the victim's sexual history. Ultimately, in 2021, the District Attorney dropped Mitchell's rape charge.

This is a result known all too well by Black women. Indeed, for Black female victims and survivors who have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV), the criminal legal system either ignores the violence against this community or criminalizes Black women for defending themselves against the violence that they have experienced. Wright's case illustrates a significant consequence Black female survivors face in their interactions with the legal system--the lack of effective protection.

Individuals and activists are now proposing that resources aimed at reducing violence against women be shifted away from prosecutors and police officers because of the racial and gender inequities that the legal system exacerbates. One central area of focus for these activists is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which is the first federal law to classify IPV as a crime and establishes structural remedies for survivors. As VAWA is currently up for its fourth reauthorization in Congress and was approved by the House in March 2021, civil rights activists have criticized the law's disproportionate funding of the criminal legal system. As the first federal law to sanction penalties for IPV, VAWA reveals a close relationship with the criminal legal system. In reference to VAWA's substantial funding of law enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration to address IPV, Leigh Goodmark, an expert in domestic violence policies, stated, "For the last thirty years, the United States has relied primarily on one tool to combat intimate partner violence--the criminal legal system."

This Note argues that a revised appropriations bill under VAWA which shifts funding away from the legal system and to culturally-specific victim programs, economic and housing programs, is necessary to target the pressing needs of Black female survivors.

The ongoing Congressional debates regarding VAWA make now an opportune time to investigate VAWA's funding priorities and the effects its interventions have on Black female survivors. VAWA's emphasis on enforcement is demonstrated by VAWA's two largest grant programs, the Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors Grant Program (STOP) and the Improving Criminal Justice Responses Program (ICJR). This Note will examine these two programs, in addition to providing an analysis of the Culturally Specific Services Program (CSSP). This analysis will demonstrate that VAWA harms Black women because the law's two largest grant programs strengthen the legal system that has criminalized Black female survivors, and this enforcement focus is compounded by the inattention to the needs of Black female survivors. Who is VAWA's funding structure working for, and whom is it working against?

Black women are impacted by VAWA's focus on criminal enforcement because they make up a disproportionately high number of IPV victims. IPV disputes increased across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, "18% in San Antonio, 22% in Portland, Ore.; and 10% in New York City", but the IPV rates dramatically increased to 50% or higher for women of color. However, Black women face 2.5 times the rate of violence of other women of color. IPV is one of the leading causes of death for Black women ages fifteen to thirty-five. Although Black women make up only 7% of the general population, they account for 22% of IPV-related homicides. Additionally, 45% of Black women have experienced IPV.

These shocking statistics are partly due to the fact that Black women's intersectionality leaves them vulnerable to IPV. Recognizing the impact of intersectionality is helpful in understanding how the relationship between IPV and criminal legal enforcement creates harm to Black women. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how the interconnected nature of one's identities creates overlapping and interdependent forms of discrimination. Black women's race, class, and gender combine to create compounding oppressions, which increase Black women's disproportionate exposure to IPV. Black female survivors are then detrimentally affected by VAWA's governmental responses to IPV because they continue to perpetuate criminalization and disenfranchisement. For example, evidence has demonstrated that Black female victims are prosecuted and incarcerated at higher rates when they decide to defend themselves during IPV disputes. This occurs because Black women's racial and gender identities have led to stereotypes that deem Black women as violent aggressors who must be punished.

It is imperative to analyze VAWA's current funding structure in a broader intersectional framework to create an approach that effectively prevents and reduces IPV. By investigating the interaction between VAWA's grant programs and Black women, this Note serves to create a path forward for an amended funding structure that effectively serves all women subjected to intimate partner violence. This intersectional approach will improve the law's ability to prevent and reduce violence. This approach is crucial because if women subjected to abuse are injured rather than aided by a law specifically intended to address IPV, the law is not working in accord with its purpose. VAWA, the vehicle of alleged assistance, has been tainted and may have been tainted from its very origin.

This Note will proceed in three parts. Part I will review the historical prevalence of violence against women, the evolution of the public and legal responses to IPV, and the relationship between Black women and the legal system. This Part will also describe VAWA's legislative history and provide a procedural explanation of the Act's funding structure. Part II will analyze three of VAWA's grant programs to examine the programs' effects on Black women. Finally, Part III will analyze how Congress can introduce a revised appropriations bill that will fund economic and housing programs, which will meet the two most pressing needs for Black female survivors.

[. . .]

The intersection of race and gender discrimination has aggressively motivated the violence Black women have faced in America. Further exposing this community to state-sanctioned criminalization pushes Black women into marginalization and keeps them there. In a country reflecting on its traditions and history, in order to make way for justice, attention must be paid to laws that inadvertently work to impede progress and equity. This two-pronged solution would benefit Black female survivors by reducing the inequitable treatment and violence that they face. In turn, these benefits would reflect a society that works to protect, not discard, all individuals, including women like Tiffany Wright.

J.D. Candidate 2023, Columbia Law School.