April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  Today, even amidst the fear and uncertainty of coronavirus, the heightened awareness about assault is still necessary. In fact, it’s even more critical now. 

The stress of social isolation, job loss, and public health risk seem to be adding to the incidences of violence across our country.  There have been reported increases in emergency calls to 911 and domestic violence hotlines over the past month. 

New York City police have received 7 percent more complaints for domestic violence since January of this year. Police in San Antonio, Texas, reported a 21 percent increase in family violence calls, with more than 500 additional calls during the first three weeks of March.

These troubling statistics tell us that sexual assault and domestic violence don’t disappear in times of crisis. In fact, they can worsen. We need to do more though, than just raise awareness.  We need action.  

Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) understands the need for action. She also understands the pain of sexual violence.  She is a survivor and recently put forward what she calls The Survivors Bill.  The Survivors Bill is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill that she introduced at the very end of last year.

Senator Ernst’s VAWA reauthorization bill does three main things. It bolsters resources to combat sexual assault and domestic violence. It punishes abusers and empowers victims. Finally, it takes the focus away from politics and puts it on survivors. 

“It is very, very personal to me. I am a survivor of rape and domestic violence, and so I am focused on getting resources and support to survivors. I want to punish abusers and really enhance the purpose of the law.”

The Survivors Bill provides a 10 percent increase in funding for shelters, hotlines and other resources for survivors; triples the support for rape prevention and education above current levels; increases penalties for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); and recognizes sex trafficking as a form of sexual assault.

Those in rural communities often do not have a local shelter that can assist them, and they might need alternative solutions.  This bill offers robust funding for important measures to address these issues in rural areas and in tribal communities.

The bill should be able to garner bipartisan support, because it is survivor-centered. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, due to a variety of political agendas. There are now competing versions of the VAWA reauthorization and partisan battle lines have been drawn.  

The alternative Violence Against Women Act reauthorization advanced by House Democrats fails to address new threats to young women and girls like FGM, child marriage, honor violence and sex trafficking. It would require survivors of domestic violence to come together with those who abused them and work toward conflict resolution. And it would threaten the Second Amendment rights of gun owners, including survivors who want to own firearms for self-protection.

Survivors deserve better than that.

As the coronavirus sweeps through our country, causing fear and violence to escalate, we need to keep sexual assault survivors – and those who are at risk – in mind.  As we confront the coronavirus challenges of today, we can still look toward a future where survivors are honored.

To sign a petition asking lawmakers to address FGM in VAWA, click here.