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While members of Congress waste time naming post offices and devising ways to get seniors to pay for billionaire's tax breaks through cuts in Medicare and Social Security, other important business is slipping through the cracks.

Specifically, if the Violence Against Women Act - signed by President Clinton in 1994 after a four year battle -- is not reauthorized by the end of the year, millions of women and kids who are victims will be left in limbo.

It is a fact that women are the most frequent victims of domestic violence, rape, and murder by spouses. But despite it's name, VAWA has never been just about women. The recent scandal at Penn State about the rape of young boys has chillingly reminded us that kids -- both boys and girls -- are very much at risk. Most people don't know that according to the Justice Department, children under 18 account for 67% of all sexual assault victimizations reported to law enforcement. And only counts those that are reported. If the program goes away, so will services and prevention programs aimed at these young victims.

VAWA began with discretionary grant programs to stem domestic violence and child abuse by funding battered women's shelters, rape prevention and education, and strengthening penalties for repeat sex offenders. When it was reauthorized in 2006, new programs were created to prevent sexual assaults on campuses (one third of which are committed by athletes)and work with young victims of sexual assault.

According to Justice Department statistics, in a typical three month period the various programs serve almost 140,000 people, with more than 10% of them children. Virtually everyone who asks for services (including males) gets services, ranging from temporary shelter to rape crisis counseling and victim advocacy.

Given this track record and ongoing scandals like Penn State, renewing the law ought to be a no-brainer. But it ain't necessarily so with the present state of Washington gridlock.

First of all, President Obama supports VAWA programs, and the stimulus package he signed into law in early 2009 contained increased $225 million in increased funding for the Violence Against Women office at the Department of Justice. We know how that plays with Republicans, whose first priority, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is to defeat Obama in 2012 and the country's needs be damned.

Secondly, conservatives have always attacked the program as a handout for "national feminist groups." They ignore the fact that almost all of the money goes to local resources and supports the National Domestic Violence Hotline located in Texas (where Laura Bush is reported to have been a donor at one time). Some want to do away with VAWA altogether.

And even though most of the statistics come from the federal government, conservative advocacy groups actively try to debunk the numbers. As a result, funding for VAWA is under incessant attack, and women's advocates must constantly defend the law and the national statistics on violence that are its underpinnings.

The Senate passed a bi-partisan authorization of VAWA back in the spring, with traditional programs intact and giving new strength to some. But conservative in House have their own version of the bill – weakening campus programs that could help with victims like those at Penn State, leaving immigrant women behind, and gutting protections for Native American families.
National women’s groups are urging the House leadership to drop these harmful provisions and get on board with the Senate version – and do it NOW.

Those on the front lines - crisis line workers, rape counselors, social workers serving abused boys and girls, and shelter personnel - know how important this legislation is. Congress is running out of time to show that it can do something besides dither while a frightening number of women and children are raped, beaten, and abused.

[A version of this blog was published originally by Other Words at http://www.otherwords.org/articles/the_cost_of_congressional_dithering]

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