When Fighting to End Violence Against Women, Non-Partisanship is Key
by Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih Director of Public Policy
As a new session of Congress gears up but many of the old problems still loom large, we wanted to reflect on one of the Tahirih Justice Center’s core values – non-partisanship – and share why we have found that holding tight to that principle in the policy world is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
Political parties and beliefs have their place, and we respect that. But our institutional belief is that the vital human rights issues we advocate for on behalf of our clients, incredible women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence, are universal and defending them occupies a bipartisan space where both have always found a way to come together.
The original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 and Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 had lead authors and co-sponsors from both parties. Subsequent VAWA reauthorizations passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and by stunning margins in the House (VAWA 2005 passed the House by 415 to 4!). And, despite the political battle that has been waged over the last year on VAWA’s reauthorization, recent signs indicate that we can reclaim that bi-partisan space again.
On February 12, 2013 the Senate passed a VAWA reauthorization bill (S.47) by a resounding 78-22 bi-partisan vote. At the same time, the Senate passed an amendment to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act by a decisive 93-5 bipartisan vote.
The House also seems to be following in the same spirit. On February 6, 2013 the Majority and Minority Leader on the House floor declared that early reauthorization of VAWA is their shared priority, and on February 14th, the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues issued a joint press statement calling for VAWA’s bi-partisan reauthorization.
So how has Tahirih been helping turn this tide in Congress? We have been at the forefront of efforts over the last year to preserve and advance protections under VAWA for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and human trafficking. We have also been fighting to keep the VAWA discourse passionate and principled, but not political.
Over the last year, Tahirih repeatedly met with staff and Members from both parties and within leadership of both House and Senate, reaching out to over 30 Congressional offices. Our even-handed approach has opened doors for us and earned us willing allies. Provisions that Tahirih drafted to strengthen the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (a law enacted as part of VAWA 2005 to protect “mail-order brides” from abuse) were offered by a Republican leader on the Senate Judiciary Committee, accepted by the Democratic Chair, and then passed by a nearly unanimous vote by the full committee last February.
As in all our advocacy initiatives, we have worked hard to build bridges, foster communication, encourage cooperation and most of all, promote respectful relationships. We have built a strong track record of working with a broad base of allies and securing bi-partisan co-sponsorships for our efforts although this can be a constant challenge in a partisan Washington.
But, no matter how complicated to achieve, non-partisanship is a core value that we strive toward in countless ways, every day. Tahirih does not support any political party, or participate in campaign activity (though we respect the right of employees and Board members to take part in party politics in their personal capacity and on their own time). That means we do not allow party-bashing at staff meetings, in lunchroom conversations or in our communications. Tahirih representatives also do not attend candidate fundraisers and are reminded to uphold our non-partisanship value at coalition meetings, at briefings and receptions, and especially in speeches and media interviews. We are always honored to be invited by a wide range of conservative and liberal groups to speak at their events, and we accept most such opportunities for public education – so long as we are not expected to be a mouthpiece for others’ platforms rather than our clients’ plights.
Tahirih has been fortunate to attract an incredibly diverse group of supporters to rally around our mission to protect women and girls from violence. Every year Tahirih invites all members of Congress to show their support by joining an Honorary Congressional Co-Chair Committee for our annual national fundraising gala. And, every year we are grateful that dozens of Democratic and Republican committed legislators from across the political spectrum agree to serve.
Tahirih’s inspiring clients deserve every last one of the allies that we can muster and marshal for their protection. Being genuinely non-partisan helps ensure that Tahirih can weather all the storms that pass through Washington and keep us effective no matter where the balance of power shifts.
The moment we presume who our best friend or worst enemy is, is the moment we will fail to be the fiercest advocates we can be for the courageous women and girls we represent.