Confronting Violence Against Women

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efore passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), there had been a growing drumbeat for improved justice responses to domestic and sexual violence since the 1970s, responses that would recognize the pain and trauma suffered by generations of women. Attackers were rarely held accountable for their actions, and the system offered few protections or services for victims living in constant fear. By the early 1990s, an extensive grassroots campaign by advocates and justice stakeholders—combined with a global focus on violence against women as a public health concern and human rights issue—had set the stage for VAWA’s initial drafting and eventual enactment.

A key provision of the Crime Bill, VAWA fundamentally changed how the justice system viewed and responded to violence against women and sent a clear message that women would no longer be made to suffer in silence for fear of adequate protection. The law strengthened federal penalties for repeat sex offenders and created a rape shield law, established the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and ensured that women who had been victimized—and their families—would have access to the services they needed to rebuild their lives. VAWA—which also funded training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges on the realities of domestic and sexual violence—has since been reauthorized by Congress multiple times, most recently in 2013.

In addition to VAWA, the Crime Bill provided for a series of additional victim protections, including allowing victims of federal sex crimes to testify at their attacker’s sentencing; strengthening requirements for sex offenders to pay restitution to their victims; and prohibiting firearm sales to or possession by individuals who are subject to domestic violence-related restraining orders. States were also required to create registers that tracked the whereabouts of individuals who have been convicted of a sex offense.

Twenty years later, there has been progress in the field. From 1993 to 2010, the rate of intimate partner violence declined 67 percent, all states have passed laws making stalking a crime, and more victims are reporting domestic and sexual violence to police. Today the National Domestic Violence Hotline receives more than 22,000 calls per month, and 92 percent of callers report that it’s their first call for help.

VAWA has evolved as well, as protections now extend to victims of date rape and stalking, and the 2013 reauthorization closed critical gaps in services to previously underserved populations of women, including Native Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, women with disabilities, immigrants, college students, and public housing residents. The impact of these changes, however, remains to be seen.

Kim Gandy: Changing a culture of violence

"Right now, we still have one in four women who will, during their lifetimes, experience domestic violence. I want that number to go to zero."

"If the last twenty years have shown us anything, it’s that VAWA works."
Barbara Mikulski
Senator, Maryland