The Violence Against Women Act Turns 26 Today. Here’s What You Need to Know About It.

Supermajority Education Fund

September 13, 2020

On September 13, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden, VAWA was the first piece of federal legislation that acknowledged domestic violence and abuse as crimes, and allocated federal funds to combat the issue. According to the Department of Justice’s “Intimate Partner Violence 1993-2010” report, intimate partner violence among women decreased by 65% after VAWA became law. 

Here’s what you need to know about VAWA as we celebrate its anniversary this week. 

Pre-VAWA efforts 

Efforts to pass VAWA began in 1990, when Biden passed a preliminary proposal to address violence against women, which led to the creation of what is now known as The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. The task force (which was initially named the Task Force on the Violence Against Women Act) worked together on the bill, which, in its final version, included training for judges and law enforcement on the issue of intimate partner violence, and helped build shelters and other supports for survivors. 

As a Congressional Research Service report notes, the violent crime rate in the U.S. more than doubled from 1960 to 1969, a startling amount of which were violent crimes against women. The report also notes that by the 1980s, one study in particular found that the public was increasingly regarding family violence as a crime instead of a private family matter, as had been the norm in the past. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan and Congress enacted the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), which assisted states in preventing instances of family violence and to provide shelter to survivors and their dependents. 

Who championed VAWA?

Over the years, the bill evolved. In 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act began moving through Congress, former California senator Barbara Boxer and Biden launched a campaign that highlighted the lack of attention and response from police and prosecutors to violence against women. As Biden recounted on the 25th anniversary of VAWA’s passing last year, as late as the 1980s, “no one denied punching a wife in the face or pushing her down the stairs was reprehensible. But most people refused to intervene. They called domestic violence a ‘family affair.'” As Time reported last year, before VAWA was passed, abusers could cross state lines to avoid being prosecuted, and police were still discouraged from intervening. 

Time also added that the legislation was co-authored by the late Kentucky Representative Louise Slaughter and former Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and had the backing of the National Organization of Women Legal Defense and Education Fund. 

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, of which VAWA is a part of, ultimately passed in 1994 as part of the Crime with a 235-195 House vote (five representatives did not vote) and a 61-38-1 Senate vote.

What’s happened with VAWA over the past 26 years? 

VAWA is up for reauthorization every five years, which The Journal of Women’s Health notes, “gives policymakers, special interest groups, and the general public time to reflect about the current need for legislation.” The VAWA of 2000, the first reauthorization of the bill, expanded protections for immigrants, sexual assault survivors, and survivors of dating violence. It also allowed survivors who had crossed state and tribal lines to obtain custody orders without returning to a place where they might be in danger. The VAWA of 2005 included Court Training and Improvements, Child Witness, and Culturally Specific programs, which focused on communities of color and immigrants. The 2013 reauthorization of VAWA expanded housing protections to Housing and Urban Development public housing and “enhanced protections and options for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.”

Although VAWA has largely been a nonpartisan bill over the years, Congress hit roadblocks with reauthorization talks in 2019. The House of Representatives voted to reauthorize VAWA last April, but efforts for the Senate to do so have stalled. The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), part of the Department of Justice, explains on its website that stalled reathorization does not mean that VAWA expires entirely, but as the Center for American Progress notes, reauthorization is key for expansion of necessary programs that serve survivors “regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”

As Joanna Belanger writes on the Giffords website (a movement to end gun violence led by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords), two provisions are at the heart of the conflict: closing the Boyfriend Loopholes and the Stalker Loophole. Current federal law does not permit people who abused their current or former dating partners from owning firearms, and only individuals who’ve been convicted of a felony aren’t allowed to buy guns. People convicted of misdemeanor stalking can own a gun. In short, the reauthorization of VAWA is stalled in the Senate over partisan loyalty to the National Rifle Association.  

“Over the past 25 years, VAWA’s dual purpose of ensuring victim safety and offender accountability has been woven into the fabric of our nation’s efforts to bring an end to these crimes,” the Department of Justice wrote on its website in February. “At OVW, we continue to work every day to carry out the mandates given to us by VAWA, which remains the law of the land.”

Constituents can still call their senators today to demand that they overlook partisan politics and prioritize VAWA.