Today marks the 19th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). As the original author and champion of VAWA, Vice President Biden brought national attention to what had too-long been a hidden problem. Then-Senator Biden held the first hearing on violence against women in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1990 and introduced the first version of the Act that same year. After five years of hearings exposing the extent of rape, battering and stalking, the Act finally passed Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on September 13, 1994.
The initial VAWA legislation focused on changing law enforcement practices, improving the criminal justice system, and increasing access to shelters and services for victims. VAWA strengthened the federal criminal code, creating interstate crimes of domestic violence and doubling penalties for repeat sex offenders. And, VAWA sparked the passage of hundreds of laws at the state level to protect victims and hold offenders accountable. Since 1994, VAWA has sent billions of dollars to states and local communities to develop a coordinated response to domestic violence, dating violence sexual assault, and stalking.
VAWA works because it brings people together to focus on real solutions. VAWA created a National Domestic Violence Hotline that today responds to more than 23,000 calls a month. The criminal justice reforms and victim services supported by VAWA have allowed women to reach out for help, call the police, receive protection from the courts, and leave abusive relationships. As a result, the annual incidence of domestic violence has dropped by 64% since 1994.
But rates of violence remain all too high, and one day’s glance at the headlines tells us why we still need VAWA. Through the hard work of Congress, advocates, the President and Vice President Biden, on March 7, 2013, President Obama signed the third reauthorization of VAWA into law, bringing about a wave of improvements that will protect the most vulnerable victims. VAWA 2013 ensures that American Indian Tribes, for the first time in decades, will be able to exercise their sovereign power to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence both Indians and non-Indians who assault their Indian spouses or dating partners in Indian country. And, VAWA will continue to allow immigrant victims to separate their immigration status from the person who is abusing them and to apply for special visas. In recognition that domestic violence can occur in any relationship, Congress included new protections for LGBT victims, prohibiting discrimination in VAWA-funded programs and encouraging states to develop specialized services for LGBT communities. Last night, the Vice President announced that the Department of Health and Human Services is providing a grant to the Northwest Network for the first-ever LGBT victim services institute. This institute will provide training for domestic violence shelters and community agencies on how to assist victims who identify as LGBT.
The new version of VAWA also strengthens existing programs and puts an increased focus on sexual assault. The new VAWA will provide funding to states to improve evidence collection, investigation, and prosecution of sexual assault crimes, including assaults in which the victim was incapacitated by alcohol. Given that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been sexually assaulted, this new focus will meet an urgent need. The new VAWA requires colleges and universities to provide information to incoming students about dating violence and sexual assault, and to have clear policies to address these crimes. Finally, the legislation protects victims in subsidized housing from being evicted from their homes as a result of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Even as we commemorate the 19th anniversary of VAWA, federal agencies are working hard to implement the new 2013 provisions. Last month, HUD sent out a notice to housing providers about the new protections, and the Justice Department has assembled a working group of Tribes to focus on best practices in criminal courts. But government can’t do it all, and the hard work of advocates, law enforcement, service providers, and survivor activists will continue to be the key to making VAWA work in local communities.
Most of all, as we reflect on 19 years of progress, we look forward to the day when VAWA is no longer needed. That will be cause for a true celebration.
(By Lynn Rosenthal)