Tribal leaders and Arizona advocates for abused women hailed the signing March 7 of the new Violence Against Women Act, which expands protections for same-sex partners, immigrants and Native American women.
January Contreras, a former prosecutor and the interim director of the Diane Halle Center for Family Justice in Tempe, said the act is "making a difference in keeping people safer" in what can be life-or-death situations.
"It represents so much of what is good about the safety net we have created in our country," said Contreras, one of those on hand at the Department of the Interior ceremony where President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
Besides expanding protections for women, the new law provides additional funding for law enforcement, courts and victim services. It aims to enhance responses to domestic violence and sexual abuse and provide greater protection for victims, including protection orders to keep abusers off tribal land.
First passed in 1994, the act provided funding for shelter, counseling, legal and other assistance for victims of sexual and domestic abuse, but the law expired in 2011. Efforts to renew the law had been hung up over provisions that would expand protections for immigrant women, those in same-sex relationships and Native American women.
But those objections were overcome and the bill passed the Senate 78-22 last month before getting final approval in the House, which beat back attempts to strip out the new provisions and passed the bill 286-238 last week.
Besides reauthorizing funding for domestic violence programs for the next four years, the new bill will for the first time allow tribal courts to try non-Native defendants charged with the abuse of Native American woman.
That provision was of particular interest to tribal leaders. Under the old law, it was left to federal prosecutors to charge non-Indians with such crimes, but advocates said those prosecutors often declined to press such cases.
"When Native American women are abused on tribal lands by an attacker who is not Native American, the attacker is immune to prosecution by tribal courts," Obama said Thursday. "Well as soon as I sign this, that ends."
The Justice Department has reported that Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than other races, and one in three Native women reports being raped in her lifetime.
"It's not just a victory for Indian Country," said National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel, who was on hand for the signing. "It's a victory for our people - for particularly our women and our families who have been abused in the past."
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, who had been a strong advocate for the new bill, called the enactment "an important moment for women everywhere, and particularly for Native American women."
The new law also says that service providers cannot deny service to gay or transgendered victims of violence, and it clarifies the extent to which immigrants are guaranteed protection and other services.