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20 Years of the Violence Against Women Act

Author: Renee Cerullo/Saturday, September 13, 2014

When we began the fight for VAWA, every 15 seconds, a woman in America was subjected to domestic violence. Despite its pervasiveness, domestic violence was regarded as a private family matter, and it received very little attention from the media, lawmakers, and law enforcement. After decades of systemic failure, federal action was necessary to prevent domestic violence incidents, better serve survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable.

VAWA took a comprehensive approach by increasing criminal penalties for various domestic violence crimes, establishing prevention programs, mandating new training for police officers, and affording abused partners with new legal protections like the federal rape shield law. Subsequent reauthorizations expanded the law by providing housing and legal aid for survivors, sexual assault services, public education grants, and training for health professionals.

Getting VAWA passed was a challenge.  The journey started just a year after Anita Hill testified during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, and many of our colleagues were unwilling to wade into “women’s issues.” It took a concerted effort from survivors and advocates to help lawmakers understand that domestic violence affects everyone, and that it was time for the federal government to step up and say “enough." 

After 20 years, it’s clear VAWA is saving lives and preventing abuse. Since 1994, the annual incidence of domestic violence has fallen by two-thirds, and reporting of domestic violence has increased by as much as 51 percent. Over one million women have obtained protective orders against their abusers. Countless children have been removed from harmful situations, breaking generational cycles of violence.

VAWA’s success is not shown only in the numbers – it’s shown in the culture. The original debate around VAWA elevated public awareness, brought women out of the shadows and let survivors everywhere know they were not alone. VAWA turned domestic violence from private suffering into public outrage. Now that the issue is discussed openly, institutions from universities to the U.S. Military to the National Football League have come under enormous public pressure to combat domestic violence and sexual assault.

As legislators, this public awareness strengthened our resolve to go further and fight harder to protect women. When Democrats were crafting the Affordable Care Act, they ended the insidious practice of insurance companies labeling domestic violence a pre-existing condition and using it as a justification to drop insurance coverage. Last year, progressive leaders in Congress and advocates worked together to expand VAWA to ensure that Native Americans, LGBT partners, and immigrant women have access to services the law provides.

Today, we celebrate the success of VAWA with the solemn recognition that there is more work to do. Almost two million women are still physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner every year. I won’t stop fighting until that number is zero.

By Louise Slaughter


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