The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) dramatically reduced sexual and domestic violence – for women and for men.  That’s why the debate about it is so shocking.

Across the country, there is a network of state coalitions consisting of nearly 1,000 organizations to prevent sexual and domestic violence and provide support to male and female survivors. There are trained counselors providing support for survivors of sexual assault, free hotlines you can call to learn more about to help survivors heal, beds – perhaps not enough – where you can sleep if your home is not safe and advocates who provide free or low-cost medical and legal services to victims of sexual and domestic violence who could not otherwise afford them.

All of these services – and more – are made possible, in part, by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which was passed this week by the House of Representatives after a long and arduous process.  The Violence Against Women Act was crafted by Vice President Biden and first passed in 1994, providing $1.6 billion dollars through a variety of state programs and federal initiatives.  In addition to funding domestic violence shelters and rape crisis programs, VAWA established federal definitions of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking and ensured that police officers, district attorneys, and social service agencies received training to effectively respond to survivors.  Before VAWA, victims of rape had to pay for their own rape kits, which would be like a victim of murder being required to pay for the processing of his or her crime scene, and protection orders against abusers were not necessarily recognized across state lines or on tribal lands.

VAWA was fully reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, both times with wide bipartisan support.  The program was an effective combination of state block grants with provisions for use and some discretionary funding for targeted national programs around engaging men or educating youth.  Over the last decade, rates of domestic violence have dropped by 64% and rates of sexual assault have fallen by 60%. The rate of intimate partner homicides of women decreased by 35% and the rate of intimate partner homicides by men decreased by 46%.

That’s why it is so astounding that the 2012 re-authorization became stalemated in Congress. Though the Senate was able to pass a version the bill, the House never took up the legislation and, at the end of the 112th Congress, VAWA was allowed to expire. At the beginning of the 113th Congress, the Senate quickly introduced and passed a new version of VAWA by a 78-22 margin  (click here to see how your Senator voted: LINK).  Though the House passed their own version of VAWA which excluded the provisions for Native American, LGBT, and undocumented communities, the Senate refused to take up the bill. In the end, the House voted pass the Senate’s version of VAWA in a 286-138 bipartisan vote. And with that, VAWA was reauthorized.

The 2013 reauthorization includes three critically important provisions. The first provision in VAWA restores the ability of tribal governments to apprehend and prosecute non-Native Americans for certain crimes involving domestic violence and sexual assault.  Native American women face some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country, with one in three Native women reporting having been assaulted in her lifetime. According to the New York Times, 80% of these sexual assaults are committed by non-Native men who cannot be tried in a tribal court. Additionally, Federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67% of sexual abuse cases in part due to the distance between their offices and the locations in which the crimes take place. The result is whole communities ravaged by the traumatic effects of sexual violence.

The two other provisions provide for the inclusion of the LGBT community in VAWA’s protections and expands the U-Visa system which grants visas to undocumented victims of crimes, including domestic and sexual violence and stalking. These protections are an integral step in an effort to ensure a fair, equitable, and effective response to domestic violence and sexual assault in ALL communities.

And yet there is still so far to travel…

The fact that the whole reauthorization process took more than 500 days and was wrought with partisan bickering raised serious questions about our country’s commitment to ending sexual and domestic violence. Democratic and Republican voters are equally impacted by sexual and domestic violence and equally served by the program.  The new provisions related to Native American, LGBT, and undocumented victims of violence were hardly controversial.

Much has changed since the Violence Against Women Act was first passed.  Law enforcement, though not perfect, has changed the way they respond to survivors.  Service providers have more resources to help survivors heal.  These advances were no small feat and are a direct result of decades of tireless and unwavering advocacy by the anti-violence community.

Yet even with all of this progress:

  • 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault in his or her lifetime. If you include all types of sexual violence, the numbers are closer to 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men.
  • 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic violence in her lifetime.
  • 1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men will experience stalking in their lifetime.

Statistics like these demonstrate just how far we have to go until we can claim victory over violence.   There is more that we must do, and we must do it together.

So let us pause for just a moment to congratulate ourselves and those who have come before us for this legislative victory, for tomorrow we get back to work.