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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Fighting to protect domestic violence survivors during the pandemic

These are uncertain times and too many people are struggling. Every day I hear from small businesses, school officials, and our mayors about the enormous challenges they are facing due to the pandemic. We need to get COVID-19 under control, restore our economy, and get our lives back.

Sadly, in the midst of these challenges, many existing issues are being exacerbated, including domestic violence and sexual assault. In the throes of the pandemic, too many survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault have been trapped at home with their abusers.

Even before COVID-19, the National Domestic Violence Hotline showed that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the United States have been victims of severe physical violence by a partner, and each year approximately 12 million Americans are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by a partner. After hearing from sexual assault survivors, I wrote a law to give survivors new legal rights. Under my legislation, survivors of sexual assault can no longer be denied a medical forensic investigation and have a right to preserve the critical evidence from their assault. I've also introduced legislation to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence from housing discrimination. Survivors should not be victimized twice – first by their abuser and again by our legal system.

This is not a new problem, but it is getting worse because of the pandemic. Speaking to this urgent need to support survivors in New Hampshire, Amanda Grady Sexton of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said: "We are witnessing the decades of work to eradicate violence against women unravel before us. … Survivors will feel the impact of this pandemic on their lives for months to come; the time to intervene is now."

Our local organizations are making a big difference for survivors, and providing them with the resources they need is among my top priorities right now. I have helped secure urgently needed funding for Bridges: Domestic and Sexual Violence Support Services in Nashua and HAVEN Violence Prevention and Support Services – located in Portsmouth, Epping, and Rochester – to provide transitional housing and other housing assistance to domestic and sexual violence survivors and their children. In previous years, I have consistently fought to secure record levels of funding for the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women, and I know we need to do more to help survivors now.

In September we marked 26 years since the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law. This landmark legislation has done so much to support survivors and prevent and curb violence over the last two and half decades. Shamefully, the Violence Against Women Act expired more than a year ago. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and it’s so disappointing to see Mitch McConnell and Washington Republicans refuse to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which is so effective at combating domestic violence and sexual assault.

When COVID-19 first hit the U.S. economy, we worked across the aisle to help Americans who were struggling, including our most vulnerable populations. I teamed up with Republican and Democratic senators to hammer out a small business program that has helped save more than 200,000 jobs in New Hampshire, and we delivered an initial round of funding to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. It’s making a difference, but we need more. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided he won’t work with us to deliver another round of relief to our communities that are struggling. In September, he tried to ram through a partisan COVID package that had zero dollars for our hospitals and health care workers, zero dollars in food assistance for families, and zero dollars for survivors.

Partisan politics shouldn’t get in the way of addressing the COVID crisis, and it shouldn’t stop Republican leadership from working with us to support survivors and prevent domestic and sexual violence. October is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I’ll continue to call for my Republican colleagues to stop obstructing, and help us ensure that the American people’s government again starts to work for the American people.

(Jeanne Shaheen is New Hampshire’s senior U.S. senator.)