Eighteen Years Later, VAWA Still Matters

Thursday, September 13, 2012 / 1:52 PM

Eighteen years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act into law. VAWA, drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden, received broad bipartisan support and cleared both the House and Senate by clear majorities (though Republicans have tried to cut the Act's funding since 1995). Politics aside, I think it's important we take a look at what VAWA has accomplished, and understand the importance and need for a continuing discussion about violence and abuse in our society.

Think Progress noted today just a few of the victories achieved through VAWA:
  • Victims can call for help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline was established as part of VAWA. It currently serves over 22,000 victims a month and has taken a total of 3 million calls.
  • Law enforcement officers are trained to help victims. 500,000 law enforcement officials, judges, and prosecutors a year are trained with VAWA funding to help domestic abuse victims.
  • Partner violence and homicides fell. From the year before VAWA’s passage until 2008, the number of women being killed by partners dropped 43 percent, and partner violence against women fell 53 percent.
  • Stalking became illegal. Before VAWA, stalking was not a federal crime. The law established stalking as a felony offense.
  • Rape is rape, no exceptions. Since the passage of VAWA, each state in the United States has updated its laws so that rape by a partner is treated equally to rape by a stranger.
There is currently a fight on the Hill over the bill because Democrats have added language to expand VAWA to protect Native Americans, LGBT victims, and undocumented immigrants. There's also the matter of many conservatives who find the bill "redundant." But, as I argued back in May, "VAWA's sole purpose is not to criminalize violence against women."

The Violence Against Women Act was first passed in 1994 and provided taxpayer money for protection of domestic abuse victims and other programs and services to support victims, including community violence prevention programs, funding for victim assistance services such as rape crisis centers and hotlines, and legal aid for survivors of violence. The Act also allocates money to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women.

The bill has largely been seen as a bipartisan issue, and was reauthorized by Congress in 2000 and again in 2005, but has been a point of contention in the House this year when the Senate's version expanded those protections to same-sex couples, illegal immigrants, and those living on Native American tribal lands.

There is story after story that can be found online of survivors who've benefited from the resources created because of VAWA, and I urge you seek those stories out to understand more of why VAWA matters. (For those unfamiliar with Project Unbreakable, I cannot recommend it enough.) And, even though it's been 18 years, VAWA will still continue to matter because there are still victims of violence out there who are silenced every day.

I've talked with many people about issues related to abuse, sexual assault, and rape over the last few years. These are things that nobody ever likes talking about, but I think it's important that we see and hear the stories in the mainstream media so we can end the culture of violence that still exists today.

Every story I heard, every person who opened up to me about their pain--it's been more than a journey through their stories; it became an understanding and acceptance of my own. It became an understanding and acceptance that this violence exists, it's real, and it needs to be talked about. It became an understanding that just because this happens to you doesn't make you a victim forever; it can be something that empowers you to become a survivor. Violence at the hand of somebody who is supposed to care about you is something that happens to you, but it doesn't need to be something that defines you.

It doesn't define me.

We can walk through our lives with masks on and pretend like the pain we endured is as invisible as some make it out to be, or we can stand up and affirm to the world that we are stronger than our attackers made us out to be. We are braver than our attackers thought we could be. We are worth more than our attackers told us we would ever be.

Violence against men and women still exists, and too often the attackers go free even after the crime has been reported. The statistics are out there, and the survivors are out there, and unfortunately the perpetrators of these crimes are also still out there. We need more education and we need more compassion if this cycle of abuse is to end someday.

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