Gender and Violence at 100 Days

By Leigh Goodmark | April 30, 2017

As you might expect in an Administration helmed by a president who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, the first 100 days have raised concerns about gender violence.  The most obvious questions involve the future of government programs directly targeting gender-based violence, but other policy decisions, from immigration to education, have implications for gender violence as well. The effects ripple outward from leadership to policing reform, transgender rights, campus sexual assault efforts, and programs designed to help the victims of intimate partner (or “domestic”) violence and beyond.

Violence in the President’s Inner Circle

When, on March 31, the President signed an executive order declaring April National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, it felt more than a bit ironic.

Allegations of gender violence have long dogged Trump and members of his inner circle.

At least fifteen women have accused Trump of sexual assault, and during the campaign, the nation was shocked when, just before the election, a tape in which he boasted about grabbing women by the genitals surfaced.

Steve Bannon, the President’s chief strategist, and Andrew Puzder, nominee for Secretary of Labor, have both been accused of intimate partner violence. Bannon remains part of the Administration (though, by some reports, in a less prominent role), while Puzder withdrew his name from consideration.

President Trump reinforced the impression that he is unconcerned about gender-based violence when, on April 5, when he declared Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly a “good man” in response to news that O’Reilly had settled cases in which five women alleged sexual assault or sexual harassment. O’Reilly has since left the network.

Violence Against Women Act

What might happen to the Violence Against Women Act is a particularly troubling question.  VAWA was first passed in 1994 and most recently reauthorized in 2013.  It offers substantial funding for police, prosecutors, courts, civil legal services, and community-based agencies working with victims of gender-based violence.  Under the Trump administration, funding for these programs may be in jeopardy.  The “skinny” budget floated by the Administration before the inauguration in January eliminated funding for the Office on Violence Against Women and all VAWA programs.  Subsequent budget documents have backed away from that position, but

VAWA is scheduled to be reauthorized in 2018; at least three members of the Trump cabinet—Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions—voted against VAWA’s 2013 reauthorization.

Other policy priorities are quite clear, however. The Trump administration is already hurting victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

Endangering Undocumented Victims of Violence

Throughout the campaign, the President made it clear that deporting undocumented people would be a priority in his administration.

As promised, on January 25, the President issued an executive order on border security and immigration enforcement.  It had almost immediate, significant implications for people subjected to gender violence.

Two weeks after the order was signed, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested an undocumented woman seeking protection from intimate partner violence in the El Paso County Courthouse.  Within weeks of the arrest in El Paso, prosecutors in Denver, Colorado, Travis County, Texas, and San Antonio, Texas were forced to drop domestic violence cases because the undocumented victims and witnesses in those cases feared deportation if they came to testify.

Women legally in the country are also affected by these actions.

Legal residents and citizens partnered with undocumented men may be leery of calling police for fear of seeing their partners deported.   Some women subjected to abuse rely on their undocumented partners for economic, parenting, and other forms of support and would be left destitute if their partners were deported.  Others fear the destruction of their families through deportation.  And undocumented men may be using the specter of ICE intervention to prevent their partners from seeking assistance, warning that they will increase their abuse if their partners expose them to deportation.  By preventing victims of gender-based violence from seeking assistance, immigration “crack-downs” hold long-term consequences for the health and well-being of many women.

Transgender Protections and Violence

Similarly, it took little time for the incoming administration to pose a threat to protections newly granted to transgender people.

On February 22, the Administration revoked guidelines allowing transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identities.

As a result of the White House’s roll-back of Obama-era protections on transgender issues, the Supreme Court remanded G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, a case involving a transgender high school student’s right to use the boys’ bathroom in his high school, to the Fourth Circuit.  The case was subsequently dismissed, though, as Senior Judge Andre Davis noted, G.G.’s case was about “much more than bathrooms…. It’s about protecting the rights of transgender people in public spaces and not forcing them to exist on the margins.”  President Trump’s actions first 100 days have jeopardized the safety and dignity of transgender people.

Policing and Gender Violence

Under President Obama, the Department of Justice increased its scrutiny of police departments.  The DOJ found evidence of unconstitutional police practices in a number of jurisdictions, including Baltimore, Maryland, New Orleans, Louisiana, Missoula, Montana, and elsewhere. In Puerto Rico, for example, the DOJ found that police officers were not being disciplined for committing intimate partner violence (in some cases, despite multiple arrests). In New Orleans, Missoula, and Baltimore, the DOJ found that the handling of rape and sexual assault cases was deeply problematic. Those jurisdictions and others entered into agreements with the DOJ, called consent decrees, to remedy these problems.

Gender-biased policing was among the issues covered in those consent decrees; police departments agreed, for example, to obtain specialized training on trauma-informed interviewing and investigation of sexual assault claims.

President Trump’s choice for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, though, has been publicly skeptical about the value of these consent decrees, and would not, in his confirmation hearings, commit to their continued enforcement.  On April 3, Sessions ordered a review of the consent decrees to determine whether they were consistent with the administration’s goals of working with law enforcement to ensure public safety.  The review has raised doubts about the Administration’s commitment to police reform generally and combating gender-biased policing specifically.

Reproductive Health and Victims of Violence

The Administration’s international and health policies are troubling, too.  On January 26, the Administration reinstated the “global gag order,” a rule preventing organizations receiving U.S. funds from providing abortions or information about abortions, even in cases of rape and sexual assault.

On April 4, the U.S. blocked all funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which provides support to women experiencing humanitarian crises, including rape and sexual assault and has, in the past, provided medicine to prevent HIV infection to victims of sexual assault in South Sudan.

And on April 12, President Trump signed legislation designed to cut off all federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions (despite the fact that it has never been legal for these groups to use federal funds to pay for abortion services). If these policy changes were made with any attention toward their impact on victims of intimate partner and sexual violence, that consideration was apparently dismissed.

Sexual Assault on Campus

It remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration will continue to support efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

During her confirmation hearings, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to commit to continued adherence to what is known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, a document from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights which stresses that sexual assault is a form of sexual harassment actionable under Title IX.

The President’s nominee for general counsel to the Department of Education, Carlos Muñiz, represented Florida State University in a Title IX action brought by a student who alleged that she had been raped by FSU’s star quarterback, Jameis Winston.  During that case, Muñiz made it clear that he did not agree with the DOE’s decision to independently investigate the matter.


Anti-violence advocates had grave concerns about the Trump Administration.  Its first 100 days have done little to allay those fears.  Instead, we’ve seen a stunning lack of concern regarding the impact of leaders and policies on gender-based violence in the U.S. and internationally.  If the Administration wanted to change the perception that it cares little about gender violence, fully funding VAWA, committing to continued enforcement of criminal and civil laws, and protecting the health, welfare, and dignity of those subjected to gender-based violence would be a good start. For victims of gender-based violence, such support cannot come soon enough.

Leigh Goodmark, Professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law

— Photo by U.S. Embassy Pakistan